Since childhood, Halloween has been my favourite holiday. Dressing up and going house to house, coming home with bags full of sweets, bobbing for apples, visiting the bonfire …
It always felt like a magical night, a night when anything was possible. Some say this is where the festival has its roots – Oíche Shamhna, falling between summer and winter, was one of those times when the doorways were open between our world and others. Ancient warriors were out cattle-raiding. Even the Morrígan came out to play.
But Oíche Shamhna is only one small part of the festival of Samhain. Samhain is summer’s end, and the beginning of the Celtic new year – because in Celtic belief, everything begins in darkness, and journeys towards the light.
These days many of us – even if we don’t believe in ghosts or the other folk –celebrate this holiday. There are certain traditions so popular that we all know of them, so I thought it might be fun to delve a little deeper into a few 🙂
Trick or Treating
As a child I was taught that it was rude to say ‘Trick or Treat.’ We were told to be polite, show off our costumes, and say ‘Help the Halloween party.’ Most of us said ‘Trick or Treat’ anyway. The practice, though, has been around for a long time. In the sixteenth century, people would go ‘mumming’ or ‘guising’. They would dress up and go house to house, and – usually in return for a song, a verse or a dance – would be given food. But even before then, people dressed up as spirits, or even as the other folk on Halloween. Whether this guising was done in order to collect gifts to appease these otherworldly beings, or to disguise themselves from them, is debatable.
Before pumpkins, there were turnips. Yes, we Irish folk carved lanterns out of turnips, beets and even potatoes. It wasn’t until the Irish got to America that Jack O’Lanterns and pumpkins came together.
As for who Jack was, that’s another tale with many variations. Before he was Jack O’Lantern, he was known as Stingy Jack because he was, well, stingy. So stingy that he’d even try fool the devil in order to keep some coin in his pocket. He invited the devil for a drink (as you do) and when it was time to buy a round, Jack didn’t feel like coughing up. He convinced the devil to turn himself into a coin, telling him he’d buy their drinks with the money. So far so bad. But once the devil had turned himself into a coin, Jack had another brilliant idea – instead of paying for a round, he’d keep the devil in his pocket. Satan was placed next to a silver cross, ensuring that he wouldn’t be able to return to his original form.
After some arguing, they came to an agreement. If Jack freed the devil, the devil had to leave him alone for a year and, when Jack died, the devil wouldn’t be able to claim his soul.
But such shenanigans weren’t enough for Jack. He managed to trick the devil again. (Makes me wonder how come we all find Big Bad so scary, seeing as Stingy Jack could get one over on him so many times). This time he got the devil to climb a tree to pick some fruit. Once the devil was up there, Jack carved a cross into the trunk, ensnaring Satan once again. They struck another bargain. This time, the devil was to leave Jack alone for a whole ten years. But soon after, Stingy Jack died.
You may be wondering: does a man like Stingy Jack go to heaven or hell? Well, neither. God isn’t all-forgiving in this particular tale, and when Jack came a-knocking, God said, ‘Thanks but no thanks.’
Jack went to his old friend the devil next, begging to be let into the fold. The devil was having none of it. Not so much as a couch did he offer to Stingy Jack.
‘Don’t you remember, Jack?’ said Satan. ‘You made me promise not to claim your soul, so … well, nothing I can do mate. Sorry. Well, not sorry. Tee hee.’ (If the devil can be tricked, then who’s to say he doesn’t giggle.)
The devil sent Jack off into the night with a burning coal to light his way. I don’t know if you’ve held a burning coal recently, but, well … they’re kind of hot. So Jack carved out a turnip, stuck the coal inside, and used it as a lantern.
Jack has been a-wandering ever since. You’ll see him in the dark, floating over marshes, from time to time. You might hear him referred to as will-o-the- wisp, or a hinkypunk or some other variation. Some sensible minded folk might even tell you that the odd light is swamp gas or another natural phenomena. But I like to let my imagination out to play as much as possible, so I say it’s Stingy Jack.
We still light lanterns just like his, in turnips or pumpkins or whatever suitable vegetable we have to hand. Maybe we do it to frighten Jack and other wandering spirits away. Or maybe we do it because it’s pretty.
Going to the bonfire was – and still is – my favourite part of Halloween. Nothing amazing happened there. There might be food and drinks. If I was good I’d get to wave a sparkler in the air. But even if there were fireworks in the sky and I had a bellyful of marshmallow, I’d still stay focused on the flames. Fire is awesome. It can mean destruction, but it also brings light. I respected and loved it even as a child, and spent the happiest hours of Halloween just gazing at it, letting my mind tell me stories of all the possibilities such a night has to offer.
According to some, bonfires are really ‘bone fires.’ At this time of year, the cattle left their summer pastures and were brought closer to home for the winter. The oldest of them would be slaughtered for that winter’s food stores, and their bones would go on the fire to crackle and burn.
The fires may have had more than just a practical significance, though. Possibly these bones were burned along with crops and other items as a religious offering.
Possibly the fires themselves were another way to use light to ward off the darkness, and scare the evil spirits away.
It was at Tlachtga (The Hill of Ward in County Meath) where the first ceremonial fire was lit each Samhain by the druids. Torches were lit from this fire and carried to other hills around the country, so that all fires began in the same place. The hearth fires in each and every house, in fact, would be relit each year by bringing torches home from the closest bonfire.
Whatever the real reason for the fires, I’m glad that they still occur. I’ll take pleasure this year, as I do every year, in staring into the flames, and dreaming of the night ahead and the new year to come.
Happy Halloween 🙂