Halloween Origins the Samhain Traditions of Celtic Ireland

Trick-or-treat, Jack-O-Lanterns and a dinner invitation for the dead…

It’s that time of year when the wind begins to whip, darkness takes over light and the shadows begin to creep. Halloween, now very commercial holiday, has a much deeper and darker origin. Today we look at that origin; the Samhain tradition and how Celtic Ireland still remembers this ancient event. A long time friend of The Fairytale Traveler brings us this piece of Irish heritage from the ‘Emerald Isle’ itself, Mr. Ed Mooney. He shares with us his Samhain Traditions leading to the origins of Halloween costumes and trick-or-treating.

There are many wonderful and fantastic stories relating to this time of year from the shidhe rising up from their dwellings to tales of other-worldly encounters, ghosts and haunting’s etc, etc. So many in fact I could write volumes of books on the subject, but for now I shall just concentrate on a few nice little traditions which I had when growing up.

Apart from being a New Year’s celebration or Harvest Festival, which predates the arrival of the Celts in Ireland, Samhain  is a special time, where the past, present, and future all become intertwined. The dead and the inhabitants of the Other World are free to walk among the living during this time as the veil which separates our two worlds is at its thinnest. Whilst our ancestors had a healthy respect for the dead, not all other world visitors would be welcome.

 

Hill of Ward Torchlit Procession

(Boynevalleydrive.ie)

Samhain Traditions

Ancient Flames at the Hill of Tara and Dressing Up

The first and possibly most common was the bonfire, a continuation of an ancient practice where a sacred flame would be taken down stream from Tlachtga to the Hill of Ward, were the fire would be light from the sacred flame. The Bonfires of old were believed to keep the evil spirits away and people would dress in disguise in belief that spirits of ill intent would not recognize them. Kids dress up originally as ghosts, witches and monster to go out ‘Trick or Treating’, this was done to disguise the living from the dead.

And from Tara all other fires across the country would be light on this night. There are also claims that the flame was part of a purification ritual, later on it seemed that the Celtic version of Christianity had some influence on tradition, in that the flames of the fire would ward off the evil spirits of the dead whom could come into our realm at this time of year.

The Dumb Supper

One of my personal favorite traditions is the ‘Dumb Supper’. Whilst some say its purpose was to appease ancestral spirits whom may decide to return to the family home, my understanding and the way I practice it involves setting an extra space at the dinner table for any ancestors whom wish to return for the night.

Photo by Ed Mooney

Photo by Ed Mooney

I see it as a symbolic mark of respect for the deceased family members. Some people will have their meal in silence hence the name Dumb Supper, but I prefer to have discussion and banter at the table. I seriously doubt a returning spirit is going to want come back to a solemn and boring dinner table otherwise? With its origins firmly steeped in Irish Tradition, there are similar practices in other cultures. Though I have noticed that many pagan traditions have absorbed the practice of the Dumb Supper and there are many different variations and ways in which it is carried out. My personal opinion is that there is no right or wrong way to hold a dumb supper, once it is done for the right reason which is to celebrate and remember lost loved ones and family members.

The Origins of Trick or Treat and the Jack-O-Lantern

The tradition of going from door to door receiving food existed in Ireland in the form of “souling”, where children and poor people would sing and say prayers for the dead in return for something nice. We now have come to know this as ‘trick-or-treating’. Then,we have the popular carving pumpkins which originated from an old Irish tale about a man named ‘Stingy Jack’, the tradition was brought to America by Irish migrants whom would have used large turnips, it then progressed to pumpkins in the form of the modern day ‘Jack O Lantern.

So, now you can see where a lot of present day Halloween traditions have evolved from. These are ancient traditions which, have turned into a bit of a marketing frenzy. Still, celebrating Halloween is fun just the same. If you’re ever in Ireland this time a year, try making a trip to the Hill of Tara for Halloween to see for yourself Samhain traditions and where our charming little Halloween Holiday really began.

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About Christa Thompson

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Christa Thompson is the Founder and Senior Editor of The Fairytale Traveler. Christa has been traveling the world since 2003 when she attended a summer abroad study at the University of Cambridge in England. Since then, her wanderlust has been fierce. Her three passions in life are her son, traveling, and being creative. The Fairytale Traveler brand gives Christa the opportunity to do all of these things and to live intentionally every day. "It's never too late to believe in what you love and to pursue your dreams." -Christa Thompson

3 Comments on this post

  1. […] of Halloween was brought over by Irish immigrants. In Ireland, the tradition is much, much older. Halloween was actually Samhain, the end of summer and the beginning of the Celtic New […]

  2. […] ancient people of Ireland, were forever banished to the underworld. In fact, this is what spawned Halloween as we know it (but that’s another […]

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