Halloween Customs

by Dennis Doyle

Although the word "Halloween" comes from the words "All Hallow's Eve", literally the evening before the "Feast of All Saints", the celebration of this night and many of the practices pre-date Christianity. For centuries, the night before November 1st marked the begining of the pagan Celtic New Year and the official beginning of the dark half of the year, called "Samhain" (pronounced sow-wen). The druids would offer sacrifices on this night. In Irish Gaelic, it is still called "Oíche Shamhna" (pronounced "ee-hah how-nah") or "Samhain Night".

In the Celtic lands of Ireland, Scotland, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Man, the spirit world was never very far from everyday life. The Celts believed that spirits both benign and malignant were in intimate contact with regular people. Each family had it's own "Banshee" (fairy woman) who would appear occasionally to family members to announce an impending death. When Christianity came to the Celts, this same sense of closeness between the spirit and regular life became a feature of Celtic Christianity. God and Mary and the saints were always a hovering, helping presence in Celtic spirituality, but the trickster fairy folk, the Sidhe (pronounced shee), the leprechaun, the pookas, and the banshee still also remained at hand.

Never was this mischievous element in the spirit world closer to the people than on the eve of Samhain. The doors were wide open to the spirit world and spirits were on the road and in the lonely dark places that night. Holy water was sprinkled on farm animals to protect them. Hollowed-out turnips or gourds with candles inside were made into makeshift lanterns to help light the way of the spirits back to where they came from. There are stories of people who lost their way on this night, and found themselves among the fairies. It was said that when this happened, they heard beautiful music and were offered delicious food and drink. When they left the fairies a few hours later and got back to the real world, they find out that they've really been away for years.

In Ireland, it is a custom to bake a ring into a loaf of barnbrack bread, and the person who finds the ring would soon be married. Dunking for apples and coins was a portent for success in achieving wealth. Some would wear outlandish costumes masquerading as the souls of the dead. The traditions of Halloween which we celebrate in this country were brought here by Irish and Scottish immigrants who lived these Celtic customs.


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