Who Started Halloween?
Every year I see someone on social media complain “Ugh. I hate how we’ve all gone so American in celebrating Halloween.” And every year I find myself typing, “Well, actually, Ireland is the home of Halloween…”
That’s the TL;DR version.
To be fair, the origins of Halloween are under some debate. Plastic pumpkins, fake spiders, and door-to-door house calls for ‘candy’ are all the result of US commercialism and cultural influence, to be sure. Over the last fifty years, Halloween has grown into a big business.
It didn’t start out that way though. Before it became a store-stocking exercise before the lead in to Christmas, it was All Hallow’s Eve to most Catholics or Hallowe’en when contracted from Hallowed Evening. Pope Gregory IV is credited with decreeing the universal observance of All Hallow’s Day or All Saints Day in 837AD. The holy gloss applied nearly 1200 years ago, however, has worn so thin that the pagan elements no longer peek through but are to the fore.
The chief culprit behind Halloween are the Celts. But let's get specific here, because we’re not talking all Celts here (and even the term ‘Celts’ has its own origin issues). A super quick history lesson is needed.
Super Quick History Lesson
Ireland was nominally Christian around 500AD (St Patrick is generally held to have died around 460-493AD). A century later, Irish monks founded monasteries in the Hebrides off the Scottish coast. Soon after, Irish war chiefs established what became the kingdom of the Dalriada. Although this declined, by the mid-9th Century, the combination of a Viking invasion and dynastic ties of the ruling Pictish elites to Ireland brought about the dominance of the Gaelic language and culture. English mapmakers no longer referred to Pictland but Scotland.
Also about this time, what we now call Old Irish would have been the common tongue across Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man (with dialectal differences). Today, Irish is the native language of Ireland. Gaelic (GAL-ick) is the native language of the Highlands and islands of Scotland. (For those interested, Scots originated in the lowlands from a mix of Old English and Norse.)
Back to How Halloween Traditions Shifted from Europe to the New World
The roots of modern Halloween come from the Scots and Irish displaced by the Highland Clearances and the Great Famine to the Americas in the 18th and 19th centuries. They took their traditions with them and adapted them to their new home. Carving turnips into jack’o’lanterns became a lot easier when using pumpkins. Trick or Treating used to be for apples and nuts and money. Tricks could include stealing a farmer’s gate, switching animals, or moving objects to/from someone’s property. Guisers went from house to house ‘in disguise’ with smeared faces, masks or by merely dressing in clothes of the opposite gender. In County Cork, like in Wales, dressing up as a White Mare using a horse’s head and a sheet happened until the late 1800s.
It’s easy to see how these traditions evolved to what we see and do today.
|A plaster cast of an early 1900s jack-o’-lantern, known as a “ghost turnip.”|
There are many more we’ve lost.
Fortune-telling used to be a major part of the Halloween celebrations. To this day, in modern Ireland, you can buy Barm Brack. This is a round fruit bread sold with a novelty ring inside. Within living memory, this use to be home-baked and contain: a twig or matchstick, a dried bean or pea, a bit of rag, a coin and a brass ring. Find the ring and you’ll be the first to marry, but win the pea and you’ll stay single this year. The cloth? Well, you’re either for the church or the poorhouse. The coin meant wealth. The stick meant either a year of disputes or an unhappy marriage.
Bonfires were held at crossroads across rural Ireland right up until the early 2000s. In Britain, this tradition was shifted out by five days and rebranded to become Bonfire Night (but that’s another story). The very first bonfire for Halloween is reputed to have been held at what is now the Hill of Ward, known as Tlachtga in Irish. The archaeological evidence for intense burning at this site dates back to 500AD. Geoffrey Keating's describes the fierce fire on a hill in Meath in his History of Ireland, written in the 17th Century. He tells how all household fires across the land must be extinguished that night, then renewed from the great fire from Tlachtga.
Games of skill such as bobbing for apples (in water or tied to a string) remain common, as is feasting—though the meals have changed. Mixed and mashed foods were especially popular: champ and colcannon in Ireland, mash o’ nine sorts in Wales, and champit tatties in Scotland. Oatcakes, griddle cakes and apple dumplings also featured.
What’s really behind these Halloween celebrations?
The pre-Christian festival underneath Halloween has roots going back to the festival of Samhain (pronounced SOW-in in Irish and SAH-ven in Gaelic) or Summer’s End. NB. In Irish, the entire month of November is Samhain and Halloween is specifically Oíche Samhna (the eve of Summer’s End). In Welsh, Halloween is Nos Galan Gaeaf, or Winter’s Eve.
Regardless of the language, this event was the Celtic New Year’s Eve. Unlike our celebrations, however, the key time was not midnight but sunset, and not midwinter but the end of harvest and the year’s farming work. This is because the Celts believed darkness precedes light, therefore night preceded day and winter precedes summer.
Liminal times and spaces were important in the prehistoric era in a way our clock-run lives can’t fully appreciate.
Sunrise and sunset dictated the working day. The end of one year and the beginning of the next was an especially important time, hence the emphasis on predicting the fortunes for the new year. The dying of the light also meant the walls between the world of the living and the dead was at its thinnest, requiring the protection of disguises for safety and to scare away ghosts and the creatures of myth. Building a bonfire can be seen as an active threat to the darkness. This is the time of year when animals are slaughtered or brought in to shelters and passing them through or near fire was an act of purification.
Likewise, places that are neither water nor land—bogs and fens—were sacred. Trees, the bridge between earth and sky were also worshipped. But, most relevant to Samhain, are caves. These may be natural such as Oweynagat (pronounced Oen-na-gat and meaning 'cave of the cats’)—the legendary entrance to hell in local Irish folklore. Or man-mound hollow hills such as Maes Howe in the Orkney Islands of Scotland, and Newgrange, Loughcrew and Dowth in Ireland. The latter are not associated with Samhain but are the homes of ancient gods (diminished to fairies) in place-lore. Travellers are warned to be wary of going near any such fairy forts or caves at Halloween, lest they be lost forever in the Otherworld or Tír na nÓg (Teer-na-nohg).
Today in Ireland, bonfires again light the Hill of Ward where there is a major festival celebrating the Irish origins of Halloween, The Púca Festival. The ancient links to Samhain at Oweynagat are emphasised in a Halloween tour of the cave.
God of SummerGod of Summer featuring Angus, the Irish god of love.
Angus McCraggan sacrificed his life to break the Celtic curse laid upon his people in the Bronze Age. He failed. Millennia later, he returns to modern Ireland to find his people have become feral, vengeful shadows. With his hollow hill now a tourist attraction, he uses his power to keep his past hidden.
Until an American calls him out…
Since a banshee attacked her as a teen, Erin De Santos has been tormented by dreams of a boy she's never met. Armed with a new identity, she returns to the Emerald Isle determined to face her nightmare. But her discovery turns fatal.
When the banshee strikes again, Angus surrenders his heart—and his hope of freeing his people—to save her. With his life now hers and his curse descending, Erin must make a terrible choice: kill her savior or share his doom.
She and her family live in the heart of Ireland, surrounded by fields in forty shades of green.
Kat is a keen cook and often experiments with traditional farmhouse foods such as making bread, cheese, jam and liqueurs. She also decorates the occasional cake.
You can find Kat at her website: katchant.com