Fans of spooky holidays — and free candy — have Ireland to thank for sharing the delightful tradition of Halloween with the world.
Halloween dates back 3,000 years to the ancient Irish and Celtic tradition of Samhain (pronounced Sow-in), which is the old Irish word for “summer’s end.” Samhain marks the end of the Celtic Year and the beginning of the New Year. The Celts believed this was a time of transition, when the veil between our world and the next came down, and the spirits of all who had died since the last Oíche Shamhna (Night of Samhain) moved on to the next life.
Samhain was the last great gathering before winter when clans came from all over Ireland to celebrate, trade, and connect. It was a time for fires, feasting, remembering what had passed, a time of reckoning, rebirth and preparing for the year ahead.
The ancient Celts celebrated this turning point in the calendar, which marks the end of the season of light and the harvest and the beginning of the dark half of the year, with the lighting of bonfires, disguising themselves in animal skins and straw masks, and carving and illuminating turnips (which were plentiful) to keep the darkness and maleficent spirits at bay.
Young children would play games and go house to house for apples and nuts, while the more mischievous ones would toss cabbage stumps at the doors of miserly elders. Such mischief was a precursor to the “papering” of homes in the modern version of Halloween.
Everyone would keep on the look out for the púca spirits, shape-shifters who could change the fortunes of anyone they met. The dark aspect of Samhain is Morrigan, goddess of war. She takes the form of a raven and leads an army of misshapen creatures on the hunt for human lives and mischief.
When Christianity took hold in Ireland, the Samhain tradition was brought into the calendar as All Hallows Eve to align with the Feast of All Saint Days on November 1, and All Souls Day on November 2.
As the Irish began to arrive to Canada in greater numbers in the 18th century, they brought Samhain with them. In Newfoundland, where more than 20 per cent of citizens claim Irish heritage, Halloween was once known as Snap-apple Night. The name referred to the tradition of bobbing for apples in a bowl or trying to bite apples suspended on a stick that had a burning candle on the other end, which a participant would try to avoid.
As turnips were not as plentiful as pumpkins and gourds in Canada, that tradition turned towards carving fierce faces in the softer flesh of larger-sized pumpkins. The purpose to ward off dark spirits by illuminating the jack-o-lanterns remained the same as it had in ancient Ireland.
Another Samhain tradition that was embraced in Canada, particularly in Newfoundland and Labrador, was the preparation and serving of traditional foods, such as colcannon and barmbrack. At one time, Colcannon Night was synonymous with Halloween in many parts of the province. Colcannon is a dish consisting of mashed potatoes mixed with cabbage or kale and lots of butter and cream. The Newfoundland colcannon tastes different from the Irish version and may contain the addition of turnip, leeks, or other root vegetables to taste.
Loaves of the dense fruit cake barmbrack are baked in celebration of the harvest, but only during Halloween do ‘extra ingredients’ get added into the mix. Various charms are hidden in the fruit cake to foretell the fortune of those who find an item in their portion of the sweet, so eating the cake with caution is recommended. A ring signifies the finder would soon be married, while a thimble signifies the female finder would be a spinster. A silver coin signifies the finder would become wealthy, while a rag or piece of cloth signifies the finder would stumble into poverty.
Those interested in tracing the roots of Halloween back to its Irish homeland, when conditions permit, will be happy to note that the holiday is very popular in Ireland to this day. The Derry-Londonderry festival has been voted one of the best Halloween festivals in the world, and the historical exhibits on the origins of Halloween are displayed at the National Museum of Ireland in County Mayo.