Irish History: Volume I
It’s spooky season! Love or hate Halloween, October is undeniably the denizen of all things creepy, crawly, and sugar-filled all over the world. From the Día de los Muertos in Mexico and Latin America (on that note—if you and your kids haven’t watched Coco, there’s no better time than now!) to Guy Fawkes Night (or Bonfire Night) in England, it’s not just America that feels a need to celebrate as the days keep getting shorter, darker, and colder. But have you ever wondered where our Halloween traditions come from? Since you’re on an Irish dance blog, I bet you have a guess!
The modern tradition of Halloween as we celebrate it in the United States stems from an ancient Celtic Pagan religious holiday called Samhain. Samhain (pronounced ‘sow’inn’) is a tradition as old as we can know—definitively dating back two millennia (and possibly a few more.) Celebrated from October 31st to November 1st, the festival marks the beginning of the “dark half of the year.” Samhain was believed to be the night where the barrier between the Otherworld (Tír na nÓg) was at its thinnest.
As people finished up the last of their harvest work, they allowed their hearth fires to burn out before attending the communal celebrations. There, the Druid priests would use a wheel (something they utilized in their worship of the sun) to spark flames and light a community bonfire. Together, everyone would burn sacrificial bones (from the feast they were soon to consume) and tokens for their personal prayers for the colder seasons. After, every family would bring a flame from the big conflagration to relight their own hearth fires–perhaps a reminder of the constant support of their community before the darkest nights of the year.
Samhain wasn’t just an excuse to gather together and ward away the cold. It was also a feast holiday before the difficulties of winter, and a way to honor deceased loved ones. Many houses would leave candles burning in their windows to light the way for spirits, and specific treats were blessed and left to appease them (it was considered extremely bad luck to eat any of that food before the night passed, though it was often given to the less fortunate the next day.) Some traditional treats include barmbrack—a sweet cake with tokens baked inside to tell your fortune—and “soul cakes” (essentially a precursor to cookies) left near the door for both the living and dead guests.
But where good spirits can get through, so can bad. That’s where costumes come in! The tradition of dressing up (usually as an animal back then) is as old as the tradition of the bonfire, believing it was the best way for everyone to hide themselves from anything frightening that may have slipped through from the Faery world. Samhain was associated with a few scary creatures in particular, including: the Pooka (a shapeshifter—but watch out for the red eyes,) the Lady Gwyn (also known as the White Lady, who chases people out too late,) the Dullahan (something like our headless horseman,) and the Sluagh Sidhe (aka the “Wild Hunt,” a faery host who will try to make you join them in their eternal sport.)
As times changed, so did traditions, especially as many Irish people settled in the New World. While we held on to the costumes, jack-o-lanterns replaced simple candles (though they were originally made from turnips!) and games and activities we’d recognize—like bobbing for apples, cider drinking, music, and all kinds of fortune-telling—became the norm. Even Mischief Night (a prank-filled tradition, mostly for teens, largely celebrated in Pennsylvania, Upstate New York, Michigan, and New Jersey) has its roots in Ireland—those who choose to wreak havoc the night before Halloween are simply taking the role of the mischievous faeries that have escaped from Tír na nÓg!
The connections of Halloween being particularly Irish doesn’t stop there--vampires as we know them in the 21st century are the product of two of Ireland’s finest. Bram Stoker was an Irishman and brought us almost all the lore we associate with vampires today with his book Dracula, taking his inspiration from the myth of the Dearg Due (a young, beautiful, blood-sucking woman.) Years later, another writer of Irish descent, Anne Rice, would bring vampires into the spotlight again with Interview with a Vampire and her many following books.
So this Halloween, after the candy is hidden and the costumes in a pile on the floor, maybe take a moment to reflect on the forgotten reason we love to celebrate it: it’s one last moment of communal warmth before the cold settles in. While this Halloween may not look like others in the past, that feeling is the part that we can cherish and retain. And we have Samhain and the Celts to thank!
This is Volume I of a series. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
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