October is drawing to a close, which can only mean one thing: Halloween is approaching. Streets are lined with cobweb-covered homes, makeshift graveyards, creatively carved pumpkins and more bed-sheet ghosts than I can count. Everyone is working on the final touches for their costumes and buying candy by the poundful to give out on Halloween night. Despite all the excitement around October 31, this popular autumn holiday might be one of my least favorites of all.
Don’t get me wrong, Halloween can be extremely entertaining, especially when you see all the imaginative costumes people concoct. When you’re a kid, it’s definitely one of the best holidays. Who wouldn’t love dressing up in crazy outfits, running around the neighborhood receiving free candy? Once you outgrow it, though, the commercialization of Halloween really sets in, and you realize that the origin and traditions of the holiday are forgotten. It’s unfortunate, because the history of Halloween is actually pretty interesting.
The origin of Halloween has been traced back to the ancient Celtic festival known as Samhain (pronounced “sah-win”), which took place on November 1. It was a celebration of the change in seasons, the end of harvest and a time to stock up for winter. Gaelic legend states that on the night before Samhain (Oct. 31), the spirits of the undead would come back to walk among the living.
Historical records of this festival vary, and no direct connection between Halloween and Samhain has been proven, but current traditions certainly have a faint similarity to happenings of ancient times.
On the night before Samhain, it is believed that people would leave food and wine on their doorsteps to please the spirits. If people left their homes, they would wear masks and costumes to mimic or appease the ghosts. This is perhaps where the concept of Halloween costumes originated. Trick-or-treating seems to resemble a couple different medieval traditions. “Souling” was when poor folk would go door-to-door on Hallowmas, or November 1, receiving food in exchange for prayers for the dead and dying on All Souls Day, November 2. Also common at the time was the act of “guising,” where people disguised themselves and went around asking for food, and in return, they would perform skits or tell jokes.
Irish immigrants brought these traditions to the U.S., and it has evolved over the years from a pre-Christian harvest celebration to an all-out street party, so to speak. Now, it’s less about spiritual rituals and the change in seasons and more about having fun and getting candy. However, you can still experience some of the rituals of the ancient Samhain celebrations in Ireland.
For Ireland, Samhain is not dead. During this time, the Irish lit bonfires, which literally means “fire of bones.” Today’s bonfires don’t contain bones, but bonfires still burn across the country, and offer an added flare with fireworks. Other traditions include fortune telling and homemade meals. A common food item is Bairin Breac, or “Halloween Cake,” a sweet bread with a ring baked inside. Whoever finds the ring will be lucky for a year. In the old days, they would bake a penny, a button, a thimble or a piece of wood or cloth. Each one meant something different, and they weren’t always positive.
I would love the chance to spend Halloween in Ireland, where it all began. And perhaps someday I will. For now, I’ll buy a pumpkin, dress up in a crazy—or not so crazy outfit—and indulge in some sweet treats, like the rest of my American compatriots.