Halloween, the Celtic American Holiday! Legends and Lore by True Thomas the Storyteller
We Celt’s have always had a thing for Scary. Werewolves, vampires, and murderous fairies were part of our culture long before they inspired the likes of Bram Stoker who was Irish, by the way. Some of our traditional myths and legends involve things that would never be allowed on TV. Cuchullain going into warp spasm comes to mind, what with the 9 ft of spurting black blood, twisting around in his own skin, and so on. And that is one of our happier legends! The scary stories are intense indeed.
Pronounced “Sow-en!” Halloween is roughly based on Samhain (pronounced Sow-en) the Celtic New Year. According to tradition, this is the beginning of the dark time, heading into the lean part of the year. Harvesting is finishing, and the long wait for spring begins. With the nights at their longest, our ancestors believed that on Samhain, the veil between the worlds was at its thinnest, and things that go bump in the night often did. The spirits of the dead could and would come back to visit, and that the fairies would run amok on this eve. Rituals included bonfires, setting out offerings, and doing things to scare unwanted spirits away. These traditions slowly merge with other cultures and traditions, until our families migrated to the US, and Voila’ a billion dollar holiday is born. Here are some factoids that you can use to educate our less informed brethren.
By any other name- Spooky! Halloween is short for “All Hallows Eve, or All Hallow e’en.” This is the evening before the Catholic Christian observance of “All Saints Day” A mass was said called “All Hallowmas” The fact that this event takes place on Samhain, is no coincidence. Pope Gregory the first, back in 601 AD decreed that it would be a great way to spread the faith, that if the locals were having a celebration, that adding a Christian celebration to it, would be great marketing. So well in fact, that Christmas, and Easter both coincide with religious celebrations of other major religions. A kind of “Join them, and then Beat them policy.” Pope Gregory IV in 835 A.D. moves All Hallowmas to Nov. 1st. And our genesis of word Halloween is born. I should add, that another fine Harvest (Roman) holiday was co-opted, one celebrating a Harvest Goddess (of apples, in particular). Her name was Pomona…hmmn..where have I heard that name before? Also, for Celts, the holiday was never about anything Satanic, originally. Our ancestors saw the Samhain tradition as dangerous, but not evil. The evil tinge comes courtesy of some fire and brimstone Christian influence. Oídche na h-aimléise: Mischief Night. (Scare them before they Scare us!) Now some folks might sit quietly quivering in the darkness, but many Irish and Scots, took a more pre-emptive tact. Go out and cause mischief before the ghosts and ghoulies do. Scare them before they Scare us! Going out and knocking over outhouses, and playing harmless tricks and such. Presumably this was effective, and a good excuse for fun, anyway. This ends up being combined with the tradition of Mumming or Guising (dressing in costumes, which was part of a variety of holidays, including Christmas!) And, which, I might add, make for handy disguises to protect the innocent, of course.
Who wants (soul) Cake? “Trick or Treat” actually has more to do the traditions of Nov. 2nd, All Souls Day. Early Christians would go begging for “soul cakes” or go “a-soulin” and promise to say prayers on behalf of people that had passed that year (actually a European tradition). More modern Scottish traditions (1800’s forward,) probably considered going around “begging” beneath them. On the other hand, singing a song, etc. for a treat was fair trade, hence, a “trick for a treat”. This tradition by the way was more associated with the Christmas season. Bribing someone not to do a Mischief was not Celtic viewpoint as the “trick or treat” tradition implies today. Why bribe someone, when you can thump them instead?
And now, Scary Americans When some of our Celtic forefathers (and mothers) move to the slums and tenements of New York, Mischief Night turns deadly in the hands of Irish gangs and local upstanding citizens start organizing Halloween parties as a healthy alternative to raising Heck. And the Holiday as we know it is born. Some of the other Celtic traditions associated with Halloween are “Snap Apple” attempting to bite an apple that is free swinging, Bobbing for Apples, and doing forms of Divination. Some of these included baking a special cake, which included small items that would predict wealth, love, and so on. There were lots of tradition rituals where young ladies could attempt to divine the name of the man they were going to marry, and much more.
Jack of the Lantern, or “Jack O’ Lantern” (Irish Head Lights!) You might not recognize the original Jack O’ Lanterns. In Ireland they had a tradition of carving turnips and putting candles in them! The practice is linked to folktale of “Hard Jack, or Stingy Jack” a mean spirited man who managed to trick and beat the devil. When he dies, Heaven and Hell won’t take him. He begs the Devil for something to keep him warm in Limbo, and the devil tosses him a burning ember. He can’t carry it in his hands, and so carves out a turnip to carry it in, to find his way. So now the ghostly visage of "Jack of the Lantern" wanders forth on Halloween, trying to find someplace to call home.
When the Irish emigrate to the U.S., they find pumpkins are easily available, and a new American tradition is born. There is some evidence that since the ancient Celtic warriors collected heads, and displayed them, that perhaps there is more to this old tradition than meets the eye. After all, a carved turnip, with a candle in it, looks eerily like a glowing human skull!
A Celtic Holiday of our very own! Unlike St. Patrick’s day when everyone is Irish, few of the millions of Halloween revelers know how American-Celtic this holiday really is. This Halloween, people will use their imaginations, scare each other silly, and feast on way too much candy. And underneath it all are the Celtic traditions that you can now regale your friends with. But as you celebrate your Halloween / Samhain, be careful. The veil between the worlds can be very ragged, and some of our old folktales are lively indeed. So lively they might want to follow a kindred Celt home! After all, our hospitality is legendary. Happy Halloween!