Irish History: Volume XIII
Samhain Costumes, Tricks, and Treats
While the commercial “Halloween” we know—trick-or-treating, costumes, candy, orange and black and pumpkins galore—didn’t used to be celebrated in Ireland, in recent years the American influence has made itself known. It’s now the standard (minus recent years for obvious reasons,) for kids 3-12 or so to ring their neighbors’ door bells and beg for (as they would say) sweets, while dressed as all manner of ghoul or goblin, princess or Power Ranger. (Though, it’s important to note, Irish adults aren’t quite as keen to celebrate the holiday in the American fashion.) But this all makes sense when you consider not only the celebration we now know as Halloween has its roots in Ireland, but also the concept of Halloween costumes and even early versions of trick-or-treating--traditions which may be as much as 2,000 years old!
The origins of the Halloween costume come from the ancient, pagan fire festival, Samhain (pronounced sow-inn,) where druidic priests built great bonfires as the dark half of the year began. As it was believed that the veil between our world and the “otherworld” (Tír na nÓg, where the Aos Sí—aka the faeries—live) was thin after dark on October 31st, the tradition of Halloween costumes began! Their original incarnation was meant to hide the wearer from any bad spirits or fey that might do them harm—or impersonate these terrifying creatures so they would pass over them with their tricks. Some believe the first version of the Halloween “mask” was simply ash from the bonfire smeared on the celebrants faces, which eventually morphed into more complex costumes, like the wearing of animal heads and skins.
These practices lived onward even as Christianity took ahold of Ireland in the 11th century, with the holiday being co-opted into Christian tradition. Renamed “All Hallows Eve,” the celebrations continued to be held the night before “All Saints’ Day” (a day literally commemorating all the Christian saints) on November 1st. Now costumes generally skewed toward outfits specifically symbolizing the souls of the dead and the first version of trick-or-treating appeared. Children (and often those stricken by poverty) went door to door, begging money, apples, and soul cakes (similar to shortbread with dried fruit)—leading this activity to be named “souling.”
The scarier costumes (though we think animal heads of pagan times do sound pretty terrifying) made their appearance around the 15th century, with most dressing up as winter spirits and demons (Irish folklore has plenty to choose from!) “Mumming” became popular—where costumed revelers would sing songs, recite poetry, and act out plays in exchange for small gifts of food (a precursor to our call of “trick or treat!”) One famed costume of sorts during this era that became the stuff of legend was that of the Láir Bhán, or the white mare. Horses were sacred to the Irish, with Druids believing them worthy of their own ritual burial if they fell in battle and consumption of their meat seen as particularly taboo during Samhain. Mummers with a ghostly white (or skeleton) horse head and draped in a sheet (usually leading a parade of others) roamed the countryside, reciting verses and asking for gifts as tribute for Celtic god figures. Imagine seeing that show up at your door!
In the 20th century, the concept of “trick-or-treat” really took form, with packs of boys roaming the Irish countryside in homemade masks. These masks were referred to as “fiddle faces” (also called “vizers” and “rhymers”) and were often made out of spare cloth or old bed sheets, with facial features drawn on. They could even be stuffed with straw or had the addition of real hair to create a more ghoulish appearance! (Though that sounds pretty itchy to us.) Just like centuries past, the children would beg for treats or money, but with a twist—if they weren’t well-received, they would play (generally) harmless pranks on the household who denied them!
With the Famine leading to mass immigration by Irish citizens to America in the second half of the 19th century, Samhain traditions began to make their way across the Atlantic and heavily influence American customs. But it wasn’t until the 1930s that American capitalism took ahold of the holiday and spooky costumes began to take a back seat to popular characters from popular culture—a trend that survives to this day. As you may have noticed, Halloween has become immensely popular in the U.S.--Halloween parties even rank the third most common party in America, only falling behind the Super Bowl and New Year’s Eve!
While American Halloween isn’t that popular in Ireland, Samhain definitely still is—just celebrated the Irish way! Dublin’s parade is supposedly one of the best in Ireland (and the world!), and begins in Carnell Square on 7 pm every All Hallow’s Eve, meandering through the city until it culminates in a firework show reminiscent of the bonfires of yore. And with all the historic buildings in Ireland, there’s many a ghost tour on Halloween night! You can also always take a visit to Bunratty Castle and Folk Park in Co. Clare—a step back in time to the old Irish way of life—their Samhain celebration is for the whole family and harkens back to the true origins of the holiday! (P.S. We heard a rumor that Miss Courtney filled in as a dancer at Bunratty Castle when she lived in Ireland!)
This post is part of a series. Read our last history post, all delicious Samhain snacks, here. 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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