The Irish were the first to celebrate Samhain approximately one thousand years ago. Halloween as we know it today was a pagan festival called Samhain. Samhain means the end of summer and is the festival that celebrates the last harvest. The Celts believed that the evening of Samhain all of the dead spirits would visit the world of the living. Below is some historical activities performed on Samhain and the folklore and reasons behind them.
Bonfires - Since the dead visited the mortal world on this night, the Celts built huge bonfires to drive evil spirits away and they dressed in disguises representing the dead. Many believed that Samhain was seen as the end of the summer, but more so the beginning of another year, the bonfire was not only meant to keep spirits away but also to ward off any bad fortune for the coming year. Prior to creating the village bonfire, villagers all over Ireland would put out all fires in their home and bring their last ember to the bonfire to make sure their home would be included in the warding of bad luck. The day after the bonfire, villagers would all take some of the ashes from the fire and spread them across their fields to ensure this protection encompassed their property, as added insurance if you will. The Celts also believed that the bonfire encouraged divination dreams and it was told that if you would drop a cutting of your hair into the embers of the bonfire, the identity of your first husband or wife would be revealed in your dreams that night.
Jack-o-lantern - A bit of folklore you may not know about the Jack-o-lantern. A old Celtic tradition states that one must carry home an ember from the communal bonfire and would carve out a turnip to store this ember and keep it burning, and as not to burn themselves during the trip. This story goes a bit deeper than just that. The story gets a bit deeper with folklore from the 18th century where there was an Irish blacksmith named Jack. He made deals with the devil and upon his death he was not allowed entry into heaven. Instead, Jack was condemned to walk the earth for eternity. Since he already had a relationship with the devil, he asked for light. The devil gave him a burning coal that Jack placed inside a hollowed out turnip and still to this day, Jack has walked the Earth each hallows eve carrying his lantern from the devil. This story sparked the Irish to hang a lantern in their front window after the bonfire on hallows eve to ensure Jack would pass their home and keep it safe for the upcoming year. When the Scotts and Irish emigrated to America they no longer had easy access to the turnip so instead began to use pumpkins as they were easier to obtain and hollow out. Hence the Jack-o-Lantern.
Costumes - Long ago, on hallows eve, the Celts did not dress in the outfits of today, but dressed in animal skins, heads and horns. The bonfire was to ward off evil spirits, but just in case an evil spirit came across a Celt, they thought the disguise would fool it and let them go free. In other areas, Celts dressed as the dead instead of disguised as animals with the same intention. This is where we get our current tradition of dressing up for Halloween.
Trick or Treat - Centuries ago in Ireland, the poor (both adults and children) would go from door to door to the more affluent homes asking for kindling, food or money. They would use their collections for their Samhain celebrations.
Releasing the Fae’s Captive Souls
As folklore states, fairies and goblins collect souls during hallows eve, and when one thinks they have encountered a fairy, they are to take dirt from under the soles of their shoes and throw it in the fairies direction they must release any captive souls. This legend has changed into many forms long ago and there are far too many versions to tell.
Shaving the Friar - In the county of Meath, in the eastern region of Ireland they played a game on Samhain called Shaving the Friar. They would place a pile of ash shaped like a cone sticking a piece of wood out of the top. Each player takes their turn trying to remove the most ash from the bottom of the pile without the pile collapsing. During the game the players would chant “shave the poor Friar to make him a liar, cut off his beard to make him afeard, if the Friar will fall, my poor back pays for all.”
Livestock - If a farm animal seemed sick on hallows eve, the farmer was to spit on the animal to ward off any evil spirits in hopes they would not take the weak animals life that night.
Colcannon - This was a traditional dinner for Samhain prior to the bonfire and festivities. It is an Irish dish made with potatoes (shocker, right?), curly kale and onions. Parents would wrap coins in paper and hide it into the children’s colcannon for them to find.
The recipe is as follows:
- 4 medium potatoes, peeled and roughly chopped
- 3 tbsp milk
- salt and pepper to taste
- 2 cups chopped cabbage or kale
- ½ onion chopped and 2 tbsp butter.
Cook potatoes, drain, keep water. Put potatoes in large bowl, add cabbage to potato water, cook until tender. Cook onions in butter, mash potatoes, add onions and cabbage, add milk, salt and pepper stir until well mixed.