Boasting a rich history rooted in Celtic and Pagan ritual, Halloween has evolved from an ethnic celebration to a blend of street festival and fright night. So,what does all this Halloween iconography symbolise?
Halloween may seem like it’s all about costumes, trick or treating, ghosts and witches, but it has its roots in pagan beliefs. Dating back about 2,000 years, Halloween marked the Celtic new year and was originally called Samhain, which translates to “Summers End” in Gaelic. Halloween represents an end and a beginning, the perfect opportunity to honour the dead and look forward to the New Year.
Samhain is considered a time to eliminate weaknesses – our Celtic ancestors slaughtered weak animals that were not likely to survive the winter and their meat was salted and stored for the dark months. This has evolved into the custom of writing your own weaknesses onto a piece of paper and then burning them. It was customary at Samhain to leave an empty chair and a plate of food for any dead guests, so they wouldn’t be offended. At the stroke of midnight, believed to be the witching hour, the dead visited and everybody had to remain silent in respect. Candles were lit in the windows and as the flame flickered it was thought that it was being touched by the spirits of dead ancestors .
Over time Halloween has evolved to a secular event. The celebration of Halloween began in Ireland in about 1000 AD, so it’s no wonder that there are so many Irish Halloween traditions that continue around the world every year. Both adults and children dress in masks and fancy costumes, groups of young people light bonfires and children carve pumpkins and bob for apples. Most of these customs have their roots in Pagan and Christian rituals. The wearing of costumes came from the tradition of mumming.
Mumming is an ancient Irish tradition were groups of people called wren boys and straw boys travelled from house to house dressed in costumes and entertaining people. The wren boys where associated with St Stephens day, but the straw boys travelled during the winter months dressed in costumes made from straw. Groups of children dressed up, chanting, singing, play-acting, and general mischief making went from door to door offering prayers for the dead in exchange for treats, particularly soul cakes. On the eve of Samhain, young people would go from house to house asking for food offerings and kindling for the Samhain fires. On the traditional day of Samhain, November 1st, people would extinguish their hearth fires and gather together to light large fires on sacred hill tops to make offerings to the gods.
Crops and the bones of animals were burnt in the fires as offerings. The modern word, bonfire, comes from the words bone and fire meaning fire of bones. Personal and symbolic items were also burned as offerings for relief from sickness or bad fortune. Folklore tells us the carving of pumpkins dates back to the eighteenth century to an Irish blacksmith named Jack who plotted with the Devil and was denied entry to Heaven. He was condemned to wander the earth but asked the Devil for some light. He was given a burning coal ember which he placed inside a turnip that he had carved out. Villagers in Ireland hoped that the lantern in their window would keep the wanderer away. When the Irish emigrated in to America there wasn’t a great supply of turnips so pumpkins were used instead.
The traditional Halloween cake in Ireland is the barnbrack. In today’s brack there’s only a ring,but originaly there where three items a piece of cloth, a coin and a ring in each cake. If you get the rag then your financial future is doubtful. If you get the coin then you can look forward to a prosperous year. Getting the ring is a sure sign of impending romance or continued happiness. The traditional Irish dinner on Halloween was colcannon, this consisted of boiled potato, curly kale (cabbage) and raw onions. Clean coins are wrapped in baking paper and placed in the potato for children to find and keep. Like barmbrack, symbolic charms can be hidden in colcannon, a ring means marriage, but a thimble dooms you to spinsterhood. The ivy leaf was often used on Halloween night to determine if a person would have a healthy year.
Each member of the family places a perfect ivy leaf into a cup of water and it’s then left undisturbed overnight. If, in the morning, a leaf is still perfect and has not developed any spots then the person who placed the leaf in the cup can be sure of 12 months health until the following Halloween. Finally, on Halloween night holy water was sprinkled on all farm animals to keep them safe during the night. If the animals were showing signs of ill health on All Hallows Eve they would be spat on to try to ward off any evil spirits.
Today you will find Halloween parties all over Dublin during the bank holiday weekend – from pub events to private gatherings. But the highlight of the festival is the Samhain Halloween Parade. Each year on October 31st the people of Dublin and its visitors come together for the spectacular and colourful parade to mark the end of summer and the people are encouraged to dress up and join in the festivities. Spectators are treated to a splendid display of dancers, performers, monsters, ghosts, giants, goblins, witches and much more. The Parade finishes with an extravagant and colourful fireworks display. Whatever you do to celebrate Halloween have fun and stay safe.