It’s a festival of great antiquity in many countries, not just in Ireland, but its Celtic origin is a significant one. There used to be many traditional customs associated with the night, be it with regard to games, food or bonfires.

I wonder how many families now still play the games, some of which I will recount shortly. It is generally accepted that over the past decade or more this annual festival has become Americanised, with all this trick ‘n’ treat carry-on and pumpkins and other stuff. But on the other hand it is possible that large elements of these ‘American’ practices came from this side of the Atlantic in the first place.

Bonfires, when not properly and safely located, have become literally a nightmarish problem in many areas. Fireworks are another hazard and in this jurisdiction are illegal to use without a licence. Their misuse can have horrific consequences. There are good arguments for having officially organised displays on the night, be it at a local community or town/city level.

However, I thought with the week that’s in it that I would research some of the history of Halloween – its place in the calendar and customs. Cork City, by the way, has its Bonfire Night on June 23rd – ach sin sceal eile.

Celtic observation of Samhain

According to what can be reconstructed of the beliefs of the ancient Celts, the bright half of the year ended on a Moon-phase near that date, a day referred to in modern Gaelic as Samhain (pronounced ‘sow-in’) and meaning End of the Summer. After the adoption of the Roman calendar with its fixed months, the date began to be celebrated independently of the Moon’s phases.

As October 31st is the last day of the bright half of the year, the next day also meant around November 1st, the beginning of Winter, which the Celts often associated with human death and with the slaughter of livestock to provide meat for the coming Winter. The Celts also believed that on October 31, the boundary separating the dead from the living became blurred.

There is a rich and unusual myth system at work here: the spirit world, the residence of the’ Sidhe’ as well as of the dead, was accessible through burial mounds. These mounds opened at two times during the year, Samhain and Beltane (Bealtaine/May), making the beginning and end of Summer highly spiritually resonant.

Halloween in Ireland

Halloween is most popular in Ireland, where it is said to (and most likely to) have originated, also known in Irish as “Oíche Shamhna” or “Samhain Night”. The Celts, as I said above, celebrated Halloween as Samhain, “End of Summer,” a pastoral and agricultural fire festival or feast, when the dead revisited the mortal world, and large communal bonfires would be lit to ward off evil spirits. In Ireland they continued to practice their deep-rooted, ancient pagan rites well after the arrival of Christianity in the middle of the sixth century. Pope Gregory IV standardised the date of All Saints’ Day, or All Hallows’ Day, in November for the entire Western Church in 835.

Because Samhain had traditionally fallen the night before All Hallows’, it eventually became known as All Hallows’ Even’ or Hallowe’en. While the Celts were happy to move their All Saints’ Day from its earlier date of the 20th of April, they were unwilling to give up their existing festival of the dead and continued to celebrate Samhain.

On Halloween night in present-day Ireland, adults and children dress up as creatures from the underworld (ghosts, ghouls, zombies, witches, goblins), light bonfires, and (especially in Derry and Dublin) enjoy spectacular fireworks displays – this would be a good idea for Waterford. The children walk around knocking on the doors of neighbours, in order to gather fruit, nuts and sweets for the Halloween festival. Salt was once sprinkled in the hair of the children to protect against evil spirits.

The houses nowadays are decorated by carving pumpkins or turnips into scary faces and other decorations. The traditional Halloween cake in Ireland is the barnbrack which of course (breac means speckled: therefore the speckled loaf) is a fruit bread. Each member of the family gets a slice. Great interest is taken in the outcome as there is a piece of rag, 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. There used to be a pea or piece of stick as well but of course health and safety issues have outlawed much of the practice – maybe just as well!

Fun and games

There are several games traditionally associated with Halloween parties. The most common is dooking or bobbing for apples, in which apples float in a tub or a large basin of water, the participants must use their teeth to remove an apple from the basin. A variant involves kneeling on a chair, holding a fork between the teeth and trying to drop the fork into an apple. Another common game involves hanging up treacle or syurp-coated scones or indeed a toffee-apple by strings; these must be eaten without using hands while they remain attached to the string, an activity which inevitably leads to a very sticky face.

Some games traditionally played at Halloween are forms of divination. In Puicini (pronounced “pooch-eeny” – not to be confused with the Italian composer!) a game played in Ireland, a blindfolded person is seated in front of a table on which several saucers are placed. The saucers are shuffled and the seated person then chooses one by touch. The contents of the saucer determine the person’s life for the following year. A saucer containing earth means someone known to the player will die during the next year, a saucer containing water foretells travel, a coin means new wealth, a bean means poverty, etc. In 19th-century Ireland, young women placed slugs in saucers sprinkled with flour. The wriggling of the slugs and the patterns subsequently left behind on the saucers were believed to portray the faces of the women’s future spouses. Just as well that one died out!! There are other games of course, and if you know of any peculiar to your area, why not let me know.

Keeping your wits about you

Q. What is a Mummie’s favourite type of music? A. Wrap!

Q. Why do demons and ghouls hang out together? A. Because demons are a ghouls best friend!

Q. What’s a monster’s favourite bean? A. A human bean.

Q. What do you call a witch who lives at the beach? A. A sand-witch.

Q. Where does a ghost go on Saturday night? A. Anywhere where he can boo-gie.

Q. Why was the girl afraid of the vampire? A. He was all bite and no bark.

Q. Why did the game warden arrest the ghost? A. He didn’t have a haunting license.

Q. Why is a ghost such a messy eater? A. Because he is always a goblin.

Q. What are ghosts’ favourite kind of streets? A. Dead ends

Q. Why did the skeleton cross the road? A. To go to the body shop.

Q. What happens when two vampires meet? A. It was love at first bite!

Q. Who was the most famous French skeleton? A. Napoleon bone-apart

Q. Which building does Dracula visit in New York? A. The Vampire State Building.

Q: Why didn’t the skeleton cross the road? A: He had no guts.

Q. What’s it like to be kissed by a vampire? A. It’s a pain in the neck.

Q. What song does Dracula hate? A. “You Are My Sunshine”

Q. What did the Mummy movie director say when the final scene was done? A. Ok, that’s a wrap.

Q. What’s it called when a vampire has trouble with his house? A. A grave problem.

Q. What kind of key does a skeleton use? A. A skeleton key.

Q. Why did Dracula take cold medicine? A. To stop his coffin.

Q. What type of dog does every vampire have? A. Bloodhound!

Q. What’s a monster’s favourite dessert? A. I-Scream!!

Q. Riddle: the maker does not want, it the buyer does not use it, and the user does not see it, what is it? A. a coffin.

Q. What do they teach in witching school? A. Spelling.

Q. Why didn’t the skeleton go to see a scary movie? A. He didn’t have the guts.

Q. How did the ghost say goodbye to the vampire? A. So long sucker!

Q. Where do vampires keep their money? A: The blood bank!!!

Some of these are quite funny or was that bony or just phoney?


Go Samhain eile, slan