by Garry Bryant / Garaidh Ó Briain
Halloween, its Celtic roots - As millions of children and adults prepare to participate in the fun of Halloween on the night of 31 October, few will be aware of its ancient Celtic roots in the Irish Samhain (pronounced 'Sow' in Irish Munster dialect, or 'sow-in') festival. In Celtic Ireland about 2,000 years ago, Samhain was the division of the year between the lighter half (summer) and the darker half (winter). At Samhain the division between this world and the otherworld (world of the dead) was at its thinnest, allowing spirits to pass through including The Lord of the Dead.
Samhain occurs on 1 November and was one of the great fire festivals, it marked the start of the Celtic new year. A day was sundown to sundown, and the magic time was dusk and dawn. [http://www.sacredfire.net/festivals.html.]
The idea that Samhain is a juncture between the two halves of the year saw it acquiring the unique status of being suspended in time - it did not belong to the old year nor the new. It could be said that time stood still on this night and the implications of this were immense. During this night the natural order of life was thrown into chaos and the earthly world of the living became hopelessly entangled with the world of the dead. But the world of the dead was itself a complicated place, peopled not only by the spirits of the departed, but also with a host of gods, fairies and other creatures of uncertain nature. ["Tlachtga: Celtic Fire Festival," by John Gilroy, http://www.newgrange.com/samhain.htm.]
The days marking half way point between the solstices and equinoxes are known as "cross quarter days" and these days are when the most important festivals of the ancient Irish occur. Known as Samhain, Imbolc, Bealtaine and Lughnasadh, each festival marks the start of a season, winter, spring, summer and autumn. Knowledge of the seasons was important for survival in northern climes as late planting could be disastrous in a short growing season. Thus equinoxes were of lesser importance. (Samhain, Bealtaine and Lughnasadh are still the names in Irish of November, May and August, respectively.)
The lighting of the Winter Fire near Athboy at Tlachtga is still practiced today. Fire is the earthly counterpart of the sun and is a powerful and appropriate symbol to express mans helplessness in the face of the overwhelming sense of the decay of nature as the winter sets in.
Evil spirits would search the world of the living looking for souls to carry back with them to the otherworld. The best defense against the evil spirits was to pretend to be one and thus the evil ones would pass one over and continue searching for a victim (i.e. someone not in costume!). So began the modern Halloween tradition of dressing in scary costumes. A tradition dating back a couple millennia and brought by Irish emigrants firstly to Scotland and later to North America and now the four corners of the Earth. [http://www.newgrange.com/samhain.htm]
Bonfires and food played a large part in the festivities just like Bealtaine, Lughnasadh, and Imbolc, Samhain involved great feasting and food was prepared for the living and the dead. As the dead were in no position it eat it, it was ritually shared with the less well off. Children went from house to house asking for food and kindling for the bonfires. [http://www.hauntedbay.com/history/bonfire.shtml.]
The bones of slaughtered livestock were cast into a communal fire, household fires were extinguished and started again from the bonfire at Tlachtga. The following day, the traditional day of Samhain, 1 November, people would extinguish their hearth fires and gather together to light large fires on sacred hill tops in honor of and to make offerings to the Gods. [http://www.hauntedbay.com/history/bonfire.shtml.] (This is where the term 'bone fire' originates) The ritual symbolizes the death of the old year and the birth of the new. [Arcade Dictionary of Word Origins ; Webster's Dictionary.]
The boundaries between a man's land and his neighbors were a dangerous place to be on the eve of Samhain. Ghosts were to be found along these points and a style between adjacent land was a place of particular dread and best avoided. Bridges and crossroads were also likely places to encounter ghosts. Naturally enough, burial places were avoided on all nights but particularly on this night. Every sort of a ghost was to be seen here and the dead mingled freely with the living. Also the practice of divination - telling the future, was an important part of everyday life for the Celts and it is certain that this art formed a central part of the festivities occurred at Tlachtga at Samhain. Vestiges of this can be seen today at Halloween are familiar with the practice of going to the church at midnight on Halloween and standing in the porch. The courageous observer will see the spirits of those who will die in the coming year if he watches closely, but runs the risk of meeting himself. Similarity, girls watching in a mirror on this night will see the image of the man they will marry but also run the risk of seeing the devil writes John Gilroy.
Gilroy also states that those brave enough to go to a grave-yard at midnight and walk three times around the graves will be offered a glimpse of the future, but again run the risk of meeting the devil. This latter example is interesting as it preserves the three time sun-wise turn so important to the Celts in the ritual. The possibility of meeting the devil may represent the well known Christian attempt to associate the pagan god of the dead with the devil of Christian belief. This being the case, Donn, Lord of the Dead, left his island home on this night and travelled freely throughout the country. Whether he carried off souls is unclear, but it is likely that he did. The ritual offerings on the Winter Fires may have been an attempt to appease him until, such time in history, he was replaced on the arrival of Christianity by the devil.
The coming of Christianity
On 13 May 609AD, Pope Boniface IV designated the day for all Christian martyrs. Then the day was moved by Pope Gregory III to 1 November and called 'All Saints & Martyrs Day,' [http://www.history.com/topics/halloween/history-of-halloween.] or as Middle English has it, 'Alholowmesse.' The night before, 31 October was thus All-Hallows Eve, or Halloween. In 1000 A.D., the church made 2 November 'All Souls’ Day,' a day to honor the dead. There are references to both days earlier, but these seem to be the dates of official sanction. [http://www.history.com/topics/halloween/history-of-halloween.] Near the end of October the Romans celebrated 'Feralia,' a day to honor the passing of the dead, and the Hindu Diwali (Divali, Deepavali) Festival known as the 'Festival of Lights' occurs about the same time as Samhain. Diwali marks the Hindu New Year just as Samhain marks the Celtic New Year, and in Mexico is 'El Dia de los Muertos,' or 'The Day of the Dead.' Asia has a similar festival day called 'Obon' which is held in the spring. [http://www.newgrange.com/samhain.htm] The Irish emigrated to North America in great numbers during the 19th century especially around the time of famine during the 1840 - 50's.
Through time other traditions have blended into Halloween, for example the American harvest time tradition of carving pumpkins has travelled back across the Atlantic. Originally the Irish made Jack-o'-lanterns out of turnips or beets but nowadays pumpkins are much easier to carve.
Two hills in the Boyne Valley were associated with Samhain in Celtic Ireland, Tlachtga and Tara. Tlachtga was the location of the Great Fire Festival which begun on the eve of Samhain (Halloween). Tara was also associated with Samhain, however it was secondary to Tlachtga in this respect. [http://www.newgrange.com/samhain.htm]
The entrance passage to the 'Mound of the Hostages' on the Hill of Tara is aligned with the rising sun around Samhain. The Mound is 4,500 to 5,000 years old, suggesting that Samhain was celebrated long before Celtic culture arrived in Ireland about 2,500 years ago. [http://www.newgrange.com/samhain.htm.]
The old Julian calendar was reformed by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582* (hence the Gregorian calendar which we use today) and ten days were annulled so that 5 October 1582, became 15 October. [Gordon Moyer, "The Gregorian Calendar," Scientific American, (May 1982). Pp. 144–152.] [*Note: the Gregorian calender did not come into effect in Ireland until 1st January 1752 because protestant England resisted using a Catholic calendar!]
However, the old cross-quarter days kept their old dates, so Hallows, which was celebrated on the night of 31 October, is still celebrated on that date, despite the fact that the actual revised date would be on 11 November. The time or season of Hallows began on the actual cross-quarter or half-quarter day between Autumn Equinox and Winter Solstice, which was 8 November, while the night of 10 - 11 November was considered the beginning of Hallows proper, the night when the hallows, or spirits of the dead, returned to this world. This period when the veil is open between this world and the next continues until 16 November, referred to as 'Gate Closing' and which coincides with what is also known as 'Hecate Night,' and also when the Leonid meteor shower begins.
In America, Halloween was extremely limited in colonial New England because of the strict Protestant belief system there. The Puritans and Pilgrims did not believe in parties, dancing or celebrating holidays, so Halloween became more common in the colony of Maryland and those colonies in the south. As different European ethnic groups came to America as well as traditions of the Native Americans, Halloween traditions blended and a distinctly American version of Halloween began to emerge.
Parents were encouraged by newspapers and community leaders to take anything 'frightening' or “grotesque” out of Halloween celebrations. Because of these efforts, Halloween lost most of its superstitious and religious overtones by the beginning of the twentieth century. At the turn of the century, Halloween parties for both children and adults became the most common way to celebrate the day. Parties focused on games, foods of the season and festive costumes. [http://www.history.com/topics/halloween/history-of-halloween.]
Between 1920 and 1950, the centuries-old practice of trick-or-treating was also revived. Trick-or-treating was a relatively inexpensive way for an entire community to share the Halloween celebration. In theory, families could also prevent tricks being played on them by providing the neighborhood children with small treats. A new American tradition was born, and it has continued to grow. Today, Americans spend an estimated $6 billion annually on Halloween, making it the country’s second largest commercial holiday, and all candy sales for the year a quarter are sold for Halloween. [http://www.history.com/topics/halloween/history-of-halloween.]
Sadly though, there is a movement by various groups that see this celebration as 'the Day of the Devil.' These groups are wanting this day done away with for it is pagan celebration and tradition. Also there are those who use this day to injure society by doing twisted works on children's candy and treats, thus causing many communities to pass ordinances against the 'trick-or-treating' or to have trunk parties in parking lots where children in costume go car to car and trunk to trunk to fill their Halloween bags.
Some superstitious beliefs
Over the centuries Halloween superstitious beliefs have been passed down. Here are just a few of them:
* Burning a candle inside a jack-o-lantern on Halloween keeps evil spirits and demons away.
* If the candle suddenly goes out in a jack-o-lantern, it is believed a ghost has come to call.
* Always burn new candles on Halloween for best of luck and do not burn Halloween candles at any other time of the year. It brings bad luck or strange explainable things will happen to you.
* Gazing into a flame of a Halloween candle will enable you to peer into the future.
* Girls who carry a lamp to a spring of water on Halloween can see their future husband in the reflection.
* It is good luck to burn an orange colored candle on Halloween.
* If you hear footsteps behind you on Halloween night, do not turn around because it may be Death itself. If you look Death in the eye it will hasten your demise,.
* Christians believe that cats are linked with bad luck, especially black cats.
* Crossing paths with a black cat on Halloween is a sign of a witch nearby. Cats are witches' familiars which means witches can turn themselves into black cats.
* Hold your breath when you pass a cemetery so evil spirits cannot enter your body.
* When passing a cemetery, turn your pockets inside out to make sure you don't bring home ghosts in your pockets.
* If you see a ghost, walk around it nine times and it will disappear.
* Children born on Halloween are believed to have the gift of second sight and the power to ward off evil spirits.
* If you see a spider on Halloween night, it means the spirit of the dead one is watching you.
* Ringing bells on Halloween will chase away evil spirits.
* Walk around your house three times backwards and three times counterclockwise before sunset on Halloween to ward off evil spirits.
* Put your clothes on inside out and walk backwards on Halloween night to meet a witch. [http://suzettenaples.hubpages.com/hub/Samhain-the-Celtic-origin-of-Halloween]
Samhain time on the Emerald Isle
Castles are perfect places to go at Halloween, and many castles hold ghost hunts, and candle lit tours such as Huntington castle County Carlow, and Birr Castle County Offaly, are particularly good. Shankill Castle County Kilkenny, has a candlelit tour led by the castle residents. This is quite serious...and as far as I know...nobody under 18 is allowed on the tour. All over the isle are many a forest walk / hunt this time of year.
Other Samhain happenings:
A Samhain prayer
Today all the emphasis on the celebration of Halloween is on the eerie & negative aspects of the 'Night of the Dead.' To me it is really about the reuniting of family, past & present, remembering and giving honor to one's forefathers. This is a good thing! Really our ancestors never completely died, in each of us they live on in our DNA.
A number of years ago while surfing the internet, I came across a post on Halloween traditions. The poster shared a prayer that she and her family do at diner on 31 October. My heart was touched by this prayer where one remembers their forefathers. [http://paganwiccan.about.com/od/samhainprayers/qt/AncestorPrayer.htm]
For me, I dress in a kilt (yes I know the Irish didn't use it but the Leiné, however my maternal ancestry is Scottish, thus the fabric is one color for Ireland and in a kilt for Scotland; I support the Gaelic League initiative of over a hundred years ago of wearing a kilt to show Irish nationalism). I feel a special almost spiritual experience when I do so (guess it's an American thing), play Celtic music, place a lit candle in the window to welcome home the ancestors (I use an electric candle because of my very big dog who would knock it over), and an extra place setting at the table. When my children were young I don the kilt and play the bagpipes as we went door to door. I got treats too, so much my sporran couldn't hold it all. Then trauma to my throat put an end to my piping.
When it is time for the meal I stand and welcome my forefathers home and to the meal. Then I recite the following prayer:
This is the night when the gateway between
our world and the spirit world is thinnest.
Tonight is a night to call out those who came before.
Tonight I honor my ancestors.
Spirits of my fathers and mothers, I call to you,
and welcome you to join me for this night.
You watch over me always,
protecting and guiding me,
and tonight I thank you.
Your blood runs in my veins,
your spirit is in my heart,
your memories are in my soul.
With the gift of remembrance.
I remember all of you.
(I then recite my Irish genealogy which is my paternal line (but maternal lineage can be recited too). My Irish line isn't too long thank goodness: "Garry mac Ralph mac Earl mac William mac William Bryant mac John O'Bryan of Thomond, Ireland, a direct descendant of Ard-Rí Brian Boru.")
You are dead but never forgotten,
and you live on within me,
and within those who are yet to come.
Oíche Shamhna shona daoibh (Happy night of Samhain)
Why the genealogy? In a study done of university students almost twenty years ago mentioned in the PBS ANCESTORS series, it was found that over 80% of college students did not know the maiden name of their grandmother. Perhaps reciting the genealogy of the parents might lead to a teaching moment for the children and grandchildren.
My name is Garry Eugene Bryant, or in Irish, Garaidh Eóghan Ó Briain. My O'Bryan family emigrated from Ireland to Canada around 1830. They were devout Catholics and my 2nd great-grandfather, William, was informed by his parents that he was to become a priest like his two older bro-thers. He ran away changed his name by dropping the O' and adding a 't,' and ended up at Black Hawk, Col-orado about 1861. But this story was family tradition, no paper doc-ument to that gives the name change. To the rescue came Family Tree DNA and the O'Brien Surname Project which confirmed that I was not only of the Dál gCais Tribe with the R-L226 & FGC5659 snp marker's, but a distant cousin to Sir Conor M. E. O'Brien, Chief of the O'Brien Clan. So I'm not an English Bryant, but an Irish O'Brien! I have three children, all grown and married, and two grandchildren. I'm a retired photojournalist, am passionate about family history and heraldry.