In contrast to our modern days, which begin with the rising of the sun, the Celtic day began and ended at sundown. For the Celts of Britain and Ireland, the year itself was divided into darkness and light. The arrival of the dark half of the year came with the coming of darkness on November 1st, with Samhain Eve celebrated at nightfall on October 31st and ending with the setting of the sun on November 1st.
The name Samhain (say SOW-in with sow rhyming with cow) comes from the Old Irish samain, referring to November 1st and is loosely translated as summer’s end or season’s end. The peoples of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man traditionally celebrated the seasons with four main festivals: Samhain which was celebrated on November 1st, Imbolc on February 1st, Bealtaine on May 1st and Lughnasadh on August 1st. Samhain marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the year’s darker half, or winter.
Samhain has been a date of vital importance in Ireland and the Celtic lands since ancient times, with mentions in the earliest Irish literature. This time had special spiritual importance as well and was seen as a time when the veil between our world and the Otherworld could be easily penetrated by the Aos Sí, which are roughly comparable to our notion of fairies or elves.
In Irish mythology, many things happen or begin on Samhain. The medieval Irish narrative, The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn, says that the fairy mounds, the abode of the Aos Sí, would open, allowing these beings to travel freely into our world. In addition to the Aos Sí, the people also believed the souls of the dead would come back to their homes and look for hospitality.
During this time, bonfires, which were thought to offer protection and had cleansing powers as well, were lit on hilltops. People would also take some of the fire from the bonfires back to their hearths at home. Food and drink offerings were placed outside to please the Aos Sí ensuring the survival of people and livestock through the long winter months.
Feasts were held and a place for the dead kinsfolk was set in the midst of the bounty. People would go in costume door to door and would often recite various verses in exchange for some food. Our modern ‘trick or treating’ may have come from this tradition. Some scholars believe the costumes or disguises were a way to imitate or disguise the participants from the Aos Sí.
All Saints Day, celebrated by Western Christianity, was shifted to November 1st to coincide with Samhain and over time both celebrations merged to create our modern Halloween. In Ireland today, the celebration of Halloween looks much the same as it is in the United States. The people of Derry hold a large Halloween festival which is a big attraction with a fancy dress parade through the center of the city followed by fireworks. People fill the streets as well as the pubs, many dressing as witches, ghosts and other characters.
So on this Halloween, here’s a traditional Irish blessing:
At all Hallow's Tide, may God keep you safe
From goblin and pooka and black-hearted stranger,
From harm of the water and hurt of the fire,
From thorns of the bramble, from all other danger,
From Will O' The Wisp haunting the mire;
From stumbles and tumbles and tricksters to vex you,
May God in His mercy, this week protect you.
And may you and yours have a Happy Halloween or Oíche Shamhna Shona Duit!