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Thursday 23 October 2014


New England Halloween Scarecrow
With Halloween nearly here, we provide some background information about it.

Halloween is the day before All Saints' Day (1st November).  But it is coincidental with the Celtic feast of Samain.  While Halloween is widely celebrated, there is sometimes ignorance of what it actually is.

The term Samain is found in three of the Gaelic languages, its modern forms being Irish Samhain, Scottish Gaelic Samhuinn and Manx Sauin.  The actual meaning of the word has been disputed.  It was one of the main festivals of the Gaelic year and it has been conjectured that it marked the start of that year.  It has also been suggested that the gates of the Otherworld were supposedly open at this time, allowing for an influx of otherworldly magical beings. The Irish tale Macgniomhartha Finn (12th Century) says that at Samhain the fairy mounds were unshut.  Samhain began at sundown on October 31st and lasted until sundown on 1st November.

Samain seems to have had clearly pagan overtones.  Charles Vallency in 1774 asserted that it was called after a god called Samain who presided over the dead, but here he was mistaken: this god is not found in the Gaelic pantheon.  However, there are definitely mythological connections with the festival.

One of the Irish goddesses called Mongfind definitely had an involvement.  Even after Christianity had supplanted paganism, she continued to be invoked.  Thus a medieval Irish chronicler wrote:
'On Samhain Eve women and the rabble address their petitions to her'.  

In modern Waterford in the south of Ireland children have been heard to repeat an old rhyme: Anocht Oíche Shamhna Mongfhionn bandia (Tonight is Samhain of Mongfind the goddess).

Another belief concerns the Morrigan, the terrible war-goddess of the ancient Irish.  She is said to emerge from a cavern called  Uaimh na gCat (Cave of the Cats)  in Roscommon, her chariot pulled by a one-legged horse.  

It is also thought there were assemblies and possibly fertility rites at Samain.

Apple Bobbing

There are many modern customs associated with Halloween which derive ultimately from Samain.  However, except among modern pagans, they no longer have pagan significance.  Bonfires are lit in celebration of the feast.  The fertility element which originally formed part of it is remembered in such customs as bobbing for apples.  Originally, you peeled the apples and threw the skin over your shoulder, the letter formed on the ground by it being the letter of your future spouse.  A kind of cake called the báirín breac (speckled loaf) is eaten and it sometimes contains a ring.  The person who finds it probably believed it originally to be a portent of marriage.  In Irish superstition, Halloween is a good time to become pregnant.

It was the custom for people with their faces blackened called guisers to go from house to house collecting for the feast.  Sometimes in the 19th Century a man wearing a white sheet and carrying a horse's skull went about.  This personage was referred to as the Láir Bhán (white mare). The guisers were probably supposed to represent goblins.  

Jack o' Lantern

The custom of carving Jack o' Lanterns at this season is probably because they either represented or were supposed to scare away magical beings.  Turnips were often used to make them, but when Halloween migrated to America, pumpkins were preferred.  At some stage scarecrows were also added to the paraphernalia of the festival.

Halloween was brought to North America by Scottish and Irish immigrants.  By this stage, even though it contained reminiscences of paganism, it was no longer regarded as a pagan or religious feast by most of those who celebrated it, but rather as a time to dress up as supernatural beings and tell ghost stories.  The guisers' custom of going from house to house collecting for the festival has been carried on in Ireland, Scotland, the USA and Canada.

Halloween in Dublin

With regard to these collections, the custom of Trick or Treat had its origin in the western portion of North America.  By about 1950 it had spread throughout the United States.  It was exported to England, where it was looked upon disdainfully by some as an American and foreign custom.  In the United States it has to some extent been supplanted, however, by Trick or Trunk, in which comestibles are given to children from the trunks of cars in a carpark.

Samain, Samhain, Samhuinn is nowadays pronounced sowin, the first syllable to rhyme with 'now'.

As regards Celtic countries that are not Gaelic, they hold festivals at the same time - Hollantide (Wales), Allantide (Cornwall), Kala Goafrv (Brittany).

Halloween in Austin (Texas); photograph Robert Simmons

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