The US may have made it popular, but it’s the Irish you must thank (or blame) for conjuring the spookiest night on the calendar. Here’s the story of how Halloween came into our lives. And just like it happened on that famous show, it had something to do with the fact that winter was coming.
Halloween: origins and Irish history
Halloween traces its roots back to the 10th century. It has origins in the Gaelic and Celtic festival of Samhain, which marked the end of light and the arrival of the darker days of winter. Halloween was the time when preparations for the darker half of the year began. Samhain was considered the liminal time when the thin line between the worlds of the living and the dead could be easily crossed. Believing that creatures from the other world would pay them a visit, observers left offerings of food and drink outside their homes to appease them and ensure their survival during harsh winters. Samhain bonfires were also lit throughout the Celtic region as they were deemed to have protective and cleansing powers to keep evil at bay.
In fact, the word Halloween is a Scottish term for All Hallows’ Eve, translating to “Summer’s End”. All Saints’ Day celebrates all saints known and unknown, to commemorate the bond between those in heaven and those living. Today, the three-day festivities to prepare for the harsh winter to come began with All Hallows’ Eve (Halloween today) on 31 October and ended on 1 November with All Saints’ Day. This is then followed by All Souls’ Day on 2 November, which commemorates those that have departed.
But how did the creepy costumes come about? As the Irish believed that the period marked the interaction between the worlds of the living and the dead, they were convinced that the beings from the netherworld might pull them down, as well. So they began disguising themselves in frightening costumes to confuse or scare off the roaming ghosts. The carved pumpkins with lights in them serve the same purpose.
This isn’t the only Samhain tradition that has survived centuries. Now, even 2,000 years later, the bonfires and elaborate feasts on the Hill of Ward in the town of Athboy in Ireland remain an important part of Halloween celebrations.
How Halloween came to the US
It’s a common misconception that Halloween is of American origin. By all accounts, it’s the Irish immigrants who took the tradition and festivities across the ocean. In fact, ‘trick or treat’ing, another Halloween tradition, also originated in Ireland as a custom wherein children and the poor went from door to door to seek food or money. In return for people’s kindness and generosity, they would sing songs or offer prayers for the souls of the dead. This tradition was then known as “souling”.
In contemporary times, trick or treating involves nothing but children knocking on doors in groups, demanding candy. Costumes, too, have evolved over the years from traditional ones resembling monsters to anything or anyone from pop culture.
Halloween in Ireland in the times of COVID-19
The pandemic sure has dampened the spirit of several festivals this year. But all’s not lost for Halloween: a number of intriguing events organised on the occasion every year have gone virtual for 2020 for you to access from your own homes.
This contemporary Samhain celebration is held in County Meath and County Louth annually to celebrate Ireland as the birthplace of Halloween. Events of the Púca Festival include a reenactment of the symbolic lighting of the Samhain fire, live music performances, incredible light installations and more food than you can possibly consume. On account of the coronavirus pandemic, the National Tourism Development Authority, Fáilte Ireland, has suspended the festival and moved celebrations to a virtual broadcast of the Samhain bonfires on 31 October. The festival will also host a series of narratives on the history and origin of Halloween on its social media channels.
What originated as a simple fancy dress party in a pub in Derry~Londonderry has become the most exciting Halloween celebration in all of Europe. Every year, it transforms into the “City of Bones”, but in 2020, it will host a digital festival themed “The Awakening” from 28 October to 1 November. The city is decked up with massive inflatable monsters and will feature banshee bike rides, fireworks and First Light celebrations with musical experiences, light installations and prayers.
Bram Stoker Festival
A favourite among fang enthusiasts, this festival celebrates Bram Stoker, author and creator of Dracula. The festival, usually celebrated with fanfare in Dublin, is slated for 30 October to 2 November annually. With theatre performances, readings, outdoor screenings of the most horrifying vampire narratives, a fun park and live podcast, the festival usually receives over 70,000 “vampires” from all across the globe. But in the wake of the pandemic, all events—including immersive theatre, online scavenger hunts and talks about the celebrated creator of Dracula—will be streamed online, conveniently for our fanged friends who cannot step out during daylight.
More than just pumpkins
While all these festivals are available for everyone, there’s more you can do to celebrate Halloween the Irish way, the way it was intended. For instance, with Irish Halloween recipes.
Halloween is more than blood-coloured fruit punch, skull-shaped cookies and cauldron cakes. Traditionally, Halloween Irish meals are meatless and all about potato dishes like champ, boxty, fadge, colcannon and bambrack, a sweet bread.
This sweet bread is baked and studded with dry fruits, concealing items that determine a person’s fortune upon consumption. The most common items hidden in the bread are a ring, hinting at an impending wedding, a coin, symbolising wealth, and a piece of clothing, which, unfortunately, predicts a period of bad luck. Recipe here
This Irish potato dish is a Halloween favourite. Made with mashed potatoes, chopped kale, cabbage and onions, it’s a simple simple meal, yet perfect before heading out for a night of spooky fun. Recipe here