Samhain in Ireland, is it really celebrated?
As millions of children and adults participate in the fun of Halloween on the night of October 31st, few will be aware of its ancient Celtic roots in the Samhain (Samain) festival. In Celtic Ireland about 2,000 years ago, Samhain was the division of the year between the lighter half (summer) and the darker half (winter). At Samhain the division between this world and the otherworld was at its thinnest, allowing spirits to pass through.
Bonfires – Fires of Bones
An outdoor activity was the lighting of a bonfire – literally a “fire of bones”, the unused remains of slaughtered animals were hygienically disposed of. In days of old a rather alarming spectacle followed – once only the embers were glowing, mainly males snatched smoldering pieces and started throwing them at each other. Trying to avoid being hit at the same time. The origins of this “sport” or “ritual” are totally obscure, though it has been branded pagan. Today’s bonfires rarely contain bones, and embers are not snatched from them – but added tyres and (in the Republic at least illegal) fireworks make them unforgettable if only for the stench and noise.
“Threatening” the occupants with often nonsensical rhymes they asked for food and drink – which was happily provided. The young men were commonly called “guisers”, “vizards”, hugadais or buachaillí tuí. In Kilkenny and other areas a láir bhán (“white mare”, a man in a horse costume) led the procession. The carrying of lanterns seems to have been almost universal in contrast, every young man had a carved turnip with a candle to illuminate the way and to scare onlookers. This might have been the origin of the “Jack O’Lantern”. If you want to make your own, simply get a turnip and treat it as you would a pumpkin. After a few minutes you will notice a certain difference – unless you resort to power tools, carving a lantern from a turnip will take a lot of effort and strength.
Other Wanderers in the Night
According to folklore you may encounter other beings out and about as well. Ghosts, ancestors, the pooka – all held at bay by light. And should the light prove insufficient people made sure to confuse any malevolent “others” by dressing strangely. Bonfires, ghosts, lanterns, undead, costume, mischievous spirits – all the ingredients of a modern Halloween are there.