Halloween or Pagan New Year?

Ian Maxwell explains how to celebrate the celtic way

For millions of children around the world, Hallowe’en is a fun time of the year. It is a chance to dress up in scary costumes, hollow out a pumpkin and trick or treat with their friends.

But many parents see a dark side to it. For Christians in particular, Hallowe’en glorifies the power of darkness, and encourages children to explore the occult. The fact that Hallowe’en has been embraced by modern pagans only increases their uneasiness about this most ancient of festivals.

Many of the ancient peoples of Europe marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter by celebrating a holiday in late autumn. The most important of these holidays to influence later Hallowe’en customs was known in Irish Gaelic as Oiche Shamhna or Samhain, meaning ‘End of Summer’, which marked the end of one year and the beginning of the next.

It took the form of a festival or feast, when the dead could once again make contact with the physical world and a whole range of practices and superstitions developed to ward off evil spirits.

The term Hallowe’en, derives from All-Hallows’ Eve, the evening before the Christian festivals of All Hallow’s Day or All Saints’ Day. In Ireland, the ancient pagan traditions associated with Samhain survived the arrival of Christianity in the middle of the sixth century and many of these remain with us as treasured Hallowe’en traditions.

On Hallowe’en hobgoblins, evil spirits, and fairies were believed to roam the neighbourhood. Mortals were in danger of being abducted to fairy land. Fairies were believed to inhabit the ancient raths and people passing by them on Hallowe’en told stories of the sounds of revelry beneath.

People who travelled on Hallowe’en were in danger of being led astray by the fairies. To counteract this, the traveller had to carry a black-handled knife or have a steel needle stuck in his coat collar or sleeve. If by chance he was led astray he might disguise himself by turning his coat inside-out, on which the fairies would no longer know him and divert their attentions elsewhere.

Throughout Ireland, it was customary to weave a cross called a Parshell. This was done by laying two little sticks, seven inches in length, cross-ways; then starting at their junction by weaving a wheaten straw under one arm, over the next and so on until about an inch from the ends of the sticks, when the straw-end was made fast. The Parshell was placed above the doorway with the object of warding off ill-luck, sickness and witchcraft for twelve months.

In Fermanagh it was believed that on the Eve of All Hallows the dead would take revenge for any hurt done to them while alive. So people with troubled consciences avoided graveyards or if they heard steps behind them did not turn around for this meant instant death.

In the kitchen the fire was banked up and the hearth swept clean. A comfortable chair would be drawn near the fire and a place laid at the table.  Then when all was ready, the door was put on the latch so that any visitor might feel welcome.

Hallowe’en was more celebrated for fortune-telling than any other night of the year. Some methods were particularly associated with it; the stones in or near the bonfire; the casting of nuts was another.

In Armagh pairs of nuts were put on the hearth and named after the courting couples. The behaviour of the nuts was supposed to be indicative of the future of the couples: if the nuts jumped apart it meant arguments and infidelity, if they stayed together, long life and happiness.

As a variation twelve pairs of holly twigs were tied together at the top, and a fire placed beneath them. These too were named after courting couples, and the first pair of twigs to catch light would be the first couple to wed.

The custom of trick or treating, although a modern American custom, has probably roots in several ancient Celtic customs. An old Irish peasant practice called for going door to door to collect money, breadcake, cheese, eggs, butter, nuts, apples, etc., in preparation for the festival of St Columb Kill.

Another was the begging for soul cakes, or offerings for one's self-particularly in exchange for promises of prosperity or protection against bad luck.

The most celebrated Hallowe’en decoration is the jack-o’-lantern, traditionally a hollowed-out pumpkin carved to resemble a grotesque face and illuminated by a candle placed inside. According to Irish folklore, Jack was known for being a drunk and a prankster.

One night he tricked the devil into climbing a tree, then trapped him by carving an image of a cross on the trunk. Jack then made him promise that, in exchange for letting him out of the tree, the Devil would never tempt him to sin again.

The Devil agreed, but exacted his revenge when Jack died by barring him from hell. Because of his mischievous ways in life, Jack was also barred from heaven and was instead condemned to wander the earth with only a single ember (carried in a hollowed out turnip) to warm him and light his way.

Hallowe’en today is largely a commercialised American version of the superstitions and traditions brought to that country by Irish and Scottish immigrants. It has become the third most popular holiday in Britain next to Christmas and Easter.

According to retailers, one million pumpkins were bought for use as lanterns in the UK last Hallowe’en. The ancient Hallowe’en traditions are now preserved as party games at costume parties, and our dead ancestors, whose day it once was, have been forced to maintain a ghostly silence.