Samhain | Ancient Irish Celebration of New Year

samhain

I’ve never really liked Halloween. I never understood why people got excited about  dressing up, or visiting the homes of strangers and demanding ‘Trick or Treat’. I never enjoyed the gaudy decorations, or the references to vampires, witches, werewolves, etc. It just felt like a superficial, commercial event designed to make money. Yes, Halloween is big business, just like Valentines Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day… and the pressure to conform or be a killjoy is immense.

Strangely, although not a Christian, I love Christmas, so at least Scrooge is not a label anyone can level at me.

I was surprised when I came to Ireland at how big Halloween is over here. Then I learned about Samhain, and it all fell into place for me. And before you ask, no, I’m not a pagan either.

For our ancient ancestors, the day began not with the arrival of dawn, but with the fall of dusk. Therefore, Samhain began on the evening of 31st October, and continued until dusk on November 1st. Similarly, their New Year began with the arrival of the dark season, Winter. Some say this equates with a belief that life is born into the light from the darkness of the womb. 

The ancient Irish divided their year into four seasons punctuated by the festivals of Imbolc, Beltaine, Lughnasa and Samhain, according to the equinoxes and solstices. Samhain lies between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.

At this time of year, the ancient people would have been very busy preparing for winter. They would have been storing their grain crops, bringing in their cattle and other livestock to winter pastures and slaughtering some of them for their meat, stacking up firewood or turf to keep the home hearths going, shoring up their homes against the ravages of winter sure to come. Celebrating Samhain was a way of giving thanks for what they had been given, and to welcome the new year.

The lighting of huge bonfires was central to the celebrations. Not only did fire represent the nurturing heat and light of the sun, but it possessed cleansing and purification powers, and brought the blessings of the Gods. Evidence of these huge fires have been found at Tlachta on the Hill of Ward, an ancient site known to be associated with the festival of Samhain, and also at Uisneach, where fires were lit to celebrate Beltaine.

As with Beltaine, all hearth fires would be extinguished in anticipation of this most significant event. As the huge communal bonfires were lit, torches of the sacred fire would be carried to homes in the community, and the hearth fires rekindled from them, thus representing the power of the sun keeping the dark winter at bay in peoples homes, and bringing the Gods blessings to the inhabitants. It must have been a quite magical and transformative experience.

It was believed that at Samhain, the veil between the mortal world and the Otherworld was very thin, and that the spirits of the ancestors could cross over and walk amongst the living again. There seemed to have been no fear in this; the ancestors were welcomed by laying a place for them at the dinner table, or leaving out food for them.

It would seem that the traditions of Samhain in Ireland were very resistant to Christian influence. In the C9th, the Catholic church felt the need to move their celebration of All Saints Day from May 13th to November 1st, followed by All Souls Day on November 2nd, perhaps as a way of gaining control over this popular pagan festivity. Eventually, all three celebrations merged into Halloween as we know it today, and thus Samhain became Christianised.

Although the early Irish did not have a God of the Dead as such, Donn of the Milesians became known as Lord of the Dead, and was associated with this role. It was said that after their passing, the dead walked the earth until they heard Donn’s call on his horn at Samhain. They would then collect at his palace at Teach Duinne, from there moving on to their eternal home in the Otherworld beyond the ninth wave. The church, however, claimed these were the souls of the damned waiting to join the God of the Dead in Hell.

It is not surprising then, that this time of year came to be feared by the ordinary people. Rather than being the friendly souls of deceased ancestors, these Otherworldly visitors began to be seen as creatures of evil out to cause havoc and destruction. They had to be bought with offerings of food and gifts, and kept at bay with superstition and ritual. So it was that people began to disguise themselves by dressing in scary costumes in the hope of frightening off any creepy ghouls or evil monsters intent on mischief. They went door to door collecting food, and so the tradition of Trick or Treat was born.

Lantern carving was another way of keeping away misfortune. Turnips were hollowed out and carved with fearsome faces, after which a lighted candle would be dropped inside. The lanterns would then be placed in the home’s windows. An Irish folk tale claims that after tricking the devil into not taking his soul, a man called Stingy Jack was refused entry into both Heaven and Hell upon his death. The devil tossed him a burning ember to use for a light, which Jack placed in a hollowed out turnip, and so he was doomed to wander the earth for all eternity. This is how the Jack o’ Lantern came into being.

There are many tales in Irish mythology which are recorded as taking place at Samhain; the Tuatha de Denann fought the Second Battle of Moytura at Samhain, whereas they fought the First Battle at Beltaine; Lugh Lamhfhada joined the court of Nuada at Samhain; Fionn mac Cumhall fought fiery Aillen of the Sidhe at Tara at Samhain;  the Cattle Raid of Cooley was said to have taken place at Samhain; the idol Crom Cruach was said to have been worshipped at Samhain, and there is a very interesting story about how King Tigernmas and three quarters of his men were killed during their devotions to Crom Cruach at Samhain (coming soon, watch this space!). I’m sure there must be others, too, which I can’t think of off the top of my head.

Incidentally, Halloween must be the only time of year when we actually encourage our children to take sweets from strangers, something far more potentially sinister in my view, than the visit of the spirits of our ancient forebears.

Enjoy Friday’s festivities everyone… Happy Halloween and a Super and Safe Samhain to you all!

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26 thoughts on “Samhain | Ancient Irish Celebration of New Year

  1. The Christian Church strikes again, bringing the fear of the dead and alll things to do with the afterlife that isn’t their heaven hell or purgatory. Growing up in England the feast was hijacked by Bonfire Night on the 5th, to my mind an obvious hangover from pagan times. We spent All Saints at Mass, All Souls at Benediction and saying the De Profundis and other creepy prayers by candle light and with the smell of incense. Then there’s be the candle left burning at night to guide the dead home. Quite horror story enough for me. Bonfire Night was the celebration with the turnip candles and fireworks, though we were forbidden by the priest to have any truck with burning effigies of Guy Fawkes.

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    1. Lol! Scary stuff indeed Jane! The Christian side of things, that is! Look at sime of the terrible things religion has done! Its because it is led by ambitious power hungry individuals, just like any other large organisation.

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    1. That is very true Chris, some terrible things have been done in the past in the name of religion, we’re still uncovering much of it in Ireland now, attrocities committed within our own lifetimes. Its not just Christianity, however, its all religions, which is pretty much why I don’t get involved. Thats not to say I’m an atheist, I stilll consider myself a spiritual person, just in a non-organised personal way. Anyone who knows me will agree that unorganised is right, lol!!!

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            1. We had plenty of those in our village when I was a kid… you could hear them before you saw them lol! When they did appear, they looked like they’d stepped right out of National Lampoons summer vacation, no word of a lie! I can never use tbe word ‘quaint’ without thinking of them! We heard it a lot…

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  2. Awesome post, Ali. I have to say, in contrast to you, one of my favorite holidays is samhain. On the one hand I get to bring out my inner big kid and make up scary stories and get away with it. 🙂 On the other hand, I have many chances to honor my ancestors both on my own and with many who are doing the same, and such rituals can be very powerful. This coming Saturday there will be, I believe the thirty-fifth, spiral dance in San Francisco, to honor and celebrate those on the other side, which attracts thousands. I’m pretty sure I’m going this time so I’ll let you know what happens! I share your dismay and distaste for the commercialism and haven’t ever been able to understand the less fun, more genuine fear of any possible encounter with ancestors that surrounds the wider cultural observance of halloween. Actually, last night I went to a smaller spiral dance celebration, with only about 150 manifest people. Everyone there invited as many ancestors as they wished to be there. Besides several of my immediate deceased relatives, there were quite a few from my ancient family as well– I didn’t literally see them all, just the people I usually see, but there were forty of them so I was informed, “four nines and four.” 🙂 We all had a wonderful and meaningful time. Happy samhain to you and your family!

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    1. Éilis, thats the kind of Samhain celebration I would love! Although I dont know what a spiral dance is, other than what it actually sounds like. Its all the other stuff, the popular stuff which Ive never liked. It just never felt ‘right’. But now I know what its really about.

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      1. Yes, it’s pretty much what it sounds like, Ali. 🙂 Lots and lots of people stand together in a circle and all join hands, then slowly spiral into the center while singing a song to honor our ancestors. In Saturday’s spiral dance the words were, “Bone by bone I honor you. Bone by bone, I honor you. I lay you down, for all that you’ve been through. I lay you down, and promise to remember you.” As we moved in a spiral, we looked into the eyes of everyone we passed. It was such a profound experience to both see those still living eye to eye while we comemmorated those gone before– who were, at that point, very much with us.

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