Today is Samhain (pronounced, Sah – ween), the festival marking the beginning of winter in Gaelic Ireland. It is attested in some of the earliest Old Irish literature, from the 10th century onward. It was one of four Gaelic seasonal festivals: Samhain (~1 November), Imbolc (~1 February), Bealtaine (~1 May) and Lughnasadh (~1 August). Dates could be mutable, and the day began at sundown and ended at sundown. Samhain and Bealtaine, were, at one time, the most important, perhaps because they marked the times of the year when animals were moved between summer and winter pastures. Longtime readers will know that I get a tad snarky when writing about traditional customs, and today will be no exception. HINT: despite what you will read on all manner of blogs and websites, especially those written by neo-pagans, Samhain is NOT the “origin” of Halloween, any more than Christmas is a descendant of the Roman Saturnalia. Samhain and Halloween now share a great many customs because of the inevitable interchange of ideas over time between cultures, but they are DIFFERENT. For my earlier thoughts on some of this confusion you can go here https://www.bookofdaystales.com/hop-tu-naa/ and here https://www.bookofdaystales.com/allhallowtide/
Halloween, a.k.a. All Hallows Eve, is part of Hallowtide, a Christian festival inaugurated by the Catholic church in the 8th century. Previously, Christian martyrs as well as the souls of the dead were given special commemoration in May to close the Easter season, but Pope Gregory III (731–741) moved the feast to November 1st and suppressed the May feast. I seriously doubt that a pope born in Syria and consumed with political and religious strife in Italy and the Byzantine empire was influenced in his decision to make November 1st the date to honor the dead by the date of a festival in Ireland. Likewise, I am not convinced that Samhain was “originally” a pagan tradition, whatever that means anyway. It does, however, have significant non-Christian hallmarks, but this does not mean it “originated” in some murky pre-Christian past of Ireland, about which we have zero documentary evidence.
The 10th-century tale Tochmarc Emire (‘The Wooing of Emer’) lists Samhain as the first of the four quarter days of the year, marked by great gatherings where people held meetings, feasted, drank a lot, and held contests. According to other, later (11th to 14th century), Irish folk tales, Samhain (like Bealtaine) was a time when the doorways to the Otherworld opened, allowing supernatural beings and the souls of the dead to come into our world. The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn says that the sídhe (fairy mounds or portals to the Otherworld) were always open at Samhain. It says that the High King of Ireland hosted a great gathering at Tara each Samhain. Each year the fire-breather Aillen emerges from the Otherworld and burns down the palace of Tara after lulling everyone to sleep with his music. One Samhain, the young Fionn mac Cumhaill is able to stay awake and slays Aillen with a magical spear, for which he is made leader of the fianna. Acallam na Senórach (‘Colloquy of the Elders’) tells how three female werewolves emerge from the cave of Cruachan (an Otherworld portal) each Samhain and kill livestock. When Cas Corach plays his harp, they take on human form, and the fianna warrior Caílte then slays them with a spear.
Some tales seem to suggest that offerings or sacrifices were made at Samhain. In the Lebor Gabála Érenn (‘Book of Invasions’), each Samhain the people of Nemed had to give two-thirds of their children, their corn and their milk to the monstrous Fomorians. The Fomorians represent the harmful or destructive powers of nature; personifications of chaos, darkness, death, blight and drought. According to the later Dindsenchas and the Annals of the Four Masters—which were written by Christian monks—Samhain in ancient Ireland was associated with a god or idol called Crom Cruach. The texts claim that a first-born child would be sacrificed at the stone idol of Crom Cruach in Magh Slécht. They say that King Tigernmas, and three-fourths of his people, died while worshiping Crom Cruach there one Samhain.
The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn tells how each Samhain the men of Ireland went to woo a beautiful maiden who lives in the fairy mound on Brí Eile (Croghan Hill). It says that each year someone would be killed “to mark the occasion”, by persons unknown. Some scholars (of whom I am skeptical) argue that several ancient Irish bog bodies (such as Old Croghan Man) appear to have been kings who were ritually killed, perhaps around the time of Samhain. You can decide for yourself how widespread the beliefs described in these tales were, and whether human sacrifice at Samhain was actually practiced, but you’ll have to read the critical literature for yourself first. My feeling is that the conclusions in scholarly literature are mostly wishful thinking based on limited evidence. In The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (1996), Ronald Hutton notes that there are no references to non-Christian rituals in Ireland prior to a dubious account in the 17th century by the Catholic priest Seathrún Céitinn.
Samhain customs are mentioned in several medieval texts. In Serglige Con Culainn (‘Cúchulainn’s Sickbed’), it is said that the festival of the Ulaid at Samhain lasted a week, involving feasting and sports. The Togail Bruidne Dá Derga notes that bonfires were lit at Samhain and stones cast into the fires. Seathrún Céitinn’s Foras Feasa ar Éirinn, claims that the feis of Tara was held for a week every third Samhain, when the nobles and ollams of Ireland met to lay down and renew the laws, and to feast. He also claims that the druids lit a sacred bonfire at Tlachtga and made sacrifices to the gods, sometimes by burning them in the fire. He adds that all other fires were doused and then re-lit from this bonfire.
Traditionally, Samhain was a time to take stock of the herds and food supplies. Cattle were brought down to the winter pastures after six months in the higher summer pastures. It was also the time to choose which animals would need to be slaughtered for the winter. As at Bealtaine, bonfires were lit on hilltops at Samhain and there were rituals involving them. However, by the modern era, they only seem to have been common in parts of the Scottish Highlands, on the Isle of Man, in north and mid Wales, and in parts of Ulster. Accounts from the 18th and 19th centuries suggest that the fires (as well as their smoke and ashes) were deemed to have protective and cleansing powers. In Moray, boys asked for bonfire fuel from each house in the village. When the fire was lit, “one after another of the youths laid himself down on the ground as near to the fire as possible so as not to be burned, and in such a position as to let the smoke roll over him. The others ran through the smoke and jumped over him”. When the bonfire burnt down, they scattered the ashes, vying with each other who should scatter them most. People also took flames from the bonfire back to their homes. In parts of Scotland, torches of burning fir or turf were carried around homes and fields to protect them.
One of the most common games was apple bobbing. Another involved hanging a small wooden rod from the ceiling at head height, with a lit candle on one end and an apple hanging from the other. The rod was spun round and everyone took turns to try to catch the apple with their teeth. Apples were peeled in one long strip, the peel tossed over the shoulder, and its shape was said to form the first letter of the future spouse’s name. Two hazelnuts were roasted near a fire; one named for the person roasting them and the other for the person they desired. If the nuts jumped away from the heat, it was a bad sign, but if the nuts roasted quietly it foretold a good match. Items were hidden in food—usually a cake, barmbrack, cranachan, champ or sowans—and portions of it served out at random. A person’s future was foretold by the item they happened to find; for example a ring meant marriage and a coin meant wealth. A salty oatmeal bannock was baked; the person ate it in three bites and then went to bed in silence without anything to drink. This was said to result in a dream in which their future spouse offers them a drink to quench their thirst. Egg whites were dropped in water, and the shapes foretold the number of future children. Children would also chase crows and divine some of these things from the number of birds or the direction they flew.
Mumming and guising was a part of Samhain from at least the 16th century and was recorded in parts of Ireland, Scotland, Mann and Wales. This involved people going from house to house in costume (or in disguise), usually reciting songs or verses in exchange for food. In parts of southern Ireland during the 19th century, the guisers included a hobby horse known as the Láir Bhán (white mare). A man covered in a white sheet and carrying a decorated horse skull (representing the Láir Bhán) would lead a group of youths, blowing on cow horns, from farm to farm.
Playing pranks at Samhain is recorded in the Scottish Highlands as far back as 1736 and was also common in Ireland, which led to Samhain being nicknamed “Mischief Night” in some parts. Wearing costumes at Halloween spread to England in the 20th century, as did the custom of playing pranks, though there had been mumming at other festivals. At the time of mass transatlantic Irish and Scottish immigration, which popularized Halloween in North America, Halloween in Ireland and Scotland had a strong tradition of guising and pranks. Trick-or-treating may have come from the custom of going door-to-door collecting food for Samhain feasts, fuel for Samhain bonfires and/or offerings for the aos sí. Alternatively, it may have come from the All Saints/All Souls custom of collecting soul cakes.
The traditional illumination for guisers or pranksters out and about on Samhain in some places was provided by turnips or mangel wurzels, hollowed out to act as lanterns and often carved with grotesque faces. They were also set on windowsills. These were common in parts of Ireland and the Scotland into the 20th century. They were also found in Somerset. In the 20th century they spread to other parts of England and became generally known as jack-o’-lanterns.
Traditional fare for Samhain includes barmbrack, a fruitcake that contains one or more tokens (like Christmas pudding) that may be found in portions given to guests. A ring (foretelling marriage) or a coin (denoting wealth) were common choices. Recipes vary as widely as any festive fruitcake recipes from Britain.
225 gm plain flour
2 tsp of baking powder
375 gm dried fruit
250ml cold tea
50 ml whiskey
125 gm light brown sugar
1 large egg
½ tsp mixed spice
Place the dried fruit in a bowl and pour over the whiskey and cold tea. Allow to soak up the liquid overnight.
Preheat the oven to 170°C/340°F.
Grease and line a 900 gm loaf tin.
Combine the flour, baking powder, sugar and mixed spice in a mixing bowl. Make a well and break in the egg, and using a wooden spoon mix the egg with the dry ingredients. Add a little bit of the liquid the fruit mix is sitting in and mix it through. You may not need all the liquid – you want a wet dough. Then stir through the fruit mix until everything is thoroughly combined. Add in the tokens and stir through.
Spoon the wet dough into the lined loaf tin and place in the oven on the middle shelf and bake for one hour. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly before removing from the loaf tin and placing on wire rack. Cover in cling wrap and tin foil and allow to sit for one to two days before cutting into it.