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How the Irish invented Hallowe'en

by Brendan Sharkie, Belfast, Ireland

The Celts celebrated Hallowe'en as Samhain, the Feast of the Dead, when the deceased revisited the mortal world. This Oiche na Sprideanna (Spirit Night) marked the end of summer.

During the 8th century, the Catholic Church designated the first day of November as All Saints Day - all Hallows. Thus All Hallows Eve became Hallowe'en. It was an occasion of family reunion after booleying. (Booley - a milking place). Booleying was a system of moving cattle and sheep to summer pastures on higher ground or distant moorland. Young folk and even whole families left the village after the crops were sown and migrated to the booley area. Small homes were built with turf or sods, or of wickerwork, and roofed with branches or heather. A chair or two, the cast iron pot, a creel and a few household items would have been strapped to the donkey's back. The little churn was slung on one side of the animal, into which the youngest child was often thrust, its head being the only part visible.

At the reunion at All Hallows, when the sheep and cattle were brought back from the summer pastures, fires were lit to mark the end of the period of growth and to herald the new year. The Hallowe'en fire was used long ago to supply light and to rekindle the domestic fire. The crops would have been harvested and the turf saved by then.

Hallowe'en was the night when the woman of the house opened her cupboards and spread a little feast for the family. Even the poorest household prepared something special for that night. Hazelnuts, apples and other fruits of the Autumn had an important place in the combined pastimes of feasting and foretelling the future. Cabbages figure in many old games and one of these, or a turnip, were often tossed against a neighbours door on Hallowe'en night to give them a fright.

Many games were played upon the theme of identifying a future husband - matchmaking and marriage being among the functions of the great festivals. In one game, four plates were set upon a table. Water was poured into one, a ring placed in another, some clay in the third and some straw, salt or oats in the last. Someone would then be led to the table blindfolded and on to whichever plate they placed a hand, so their future would turn out. The water signified migration, the ring marriage, the clay death and the fourth prosperity. On rearranging of the plates others would be blindfolded and led up to take their turn. In another game, a perfect Ivy leaf was placed in a container of cold water. On the following morning if the Ivy leaf had no blemishes that person would have twelve months of good health. If not...?

Special food served would have been Colcannon - mashed boiled potatoes mixed with cooked green cabbage and chopped raw onion. Cooked bacon could also be added, the whole seasoned with salt and pepper. Barmbrack, a fruit loaf often containing a coin or a ring, would be served.

Jack O'Lantern was a blacksmith, a lost soul, to whom the Devil gave a hollowed out turnip in which was placed a burning coal ember. He was doomed to roam the Earth forever. So, today, we have the tradition of the turnip lantern. In the USA where the turnip was not so widespread, a pumpkin was used.

Celtic Druids dressed up to disguise themselves from the ghosts or devils roaming the land on Hallowe'en night so as to avoid being carried away. Hence the tradition of dressing up at Hallowe'en. However great the fright, nobody would really be surprised to meet with the Puca, the Black Pig, or meet up with that headless ghost, the Dullahan... or to wake in the dark of night and find the returned dead of the family seated around the kitchen hearth...

BIO: Brendan lives in Belfast. He's a retired librarian who spends much of his time at his 150 year-old cottage in Donegal. An amateur palaeontologist, his best find was a jawbone and teeth of an ichthyosaur, which he donated to the museum in Belfast.  He survived relatively unscathed from the thirty-year war. He is divorced with one grown-up son. If you'd like to write to Brendan: brendansharkie@hotmail.com

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