Halloween Customs in the Celtic World

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celtic halloween - A traditional Irish turnip Jack-o'-lantern from the early 20th century. Photographed at the Museum of Country Life, Ireland.Halloween Customs in the Celtic World

By Bettina Arnold

Lecture given at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, October 31, 2001

Introduction: Night of the spirits; Feast of the Dead; New Year’s Eve; the year’s turning; Calends of winter; Summer’s End; one of the “joints of the year”; beginning of the barren time; day of divination; festival of the harvest; doorway into the new year; Mischief Night; Punky Night; Samhain; Nos Calan gaeaf; All Hallow’s Eve. These are all descriptions of one of the most important seasonal festivals of the Celtic world, the night of October 31, this evening, Halloween. In Wales it is known as Hollantide, in Cornwall Allantide, and in Brittany Kala-Goanv. Samhain’s equivalent on the Christian calendar is All Saints’ Day, introduced by the Catholic church partly to supplant the pagan festival of the dead.

Halloween’s counterpart is the other great “hinge of the year”, April 30, Beltain or May Day Eve, which marks the beginning of summer. To understand the significance of these seasonal festivals, we need to step back in time for a moment, closer to the food production cycle than most of us are today. In pre-Christian Europe, most important holidays were celebrated on the evening of the day before the actual date of the transition from one season to the next, since the easiest way of measuring the passing of time was by observing a complete cycle of the moon – the origin of the english word “month”.

Samhain was the end of summer and the beginning of the new year. It coincided with the rounding up of the herds for culling and penning, the storing of crops, and the beaching and repairing of fishing boats and gear, all in preparation for the coming winter. Warfare officially came to an end at Samhain, partly for practical reasons related to weather, but raiding, especially of cattle, seems to have peaked between Michaelmas (September 29) and Martinmas (November 11), at least in the Border region of Scotland, where we have 16th century accounts of such activity during this time. Herds under cover are concentrated and easier to steal, whereas before Lammas (August 1) the cattle were dispersed in the high shielings. According to one official writing in the 16th century, at Samhain “are the fells good and drie and cattle strong to drive”. Night rides across landscapes like the Border region in Scotland looked a lot less attractive by Candlemas (February 2), due to the foul weather and the weaker state of the cattle. So Samhain was known in some, but not all, Celtic regions as as the feast of peace and friendship, during which no weapon was lifted. Hunting in Scotland also appears to have been limited by law to the period from Beltain to Samhain, in order to give the deer and especially the wild pig, a chance to breed. Samhain coincides with the onset of the breeding season of the wild pig, which lasts from November to January. The pig, wild or domestic, was thus the “sacrificial” animal of Samhain, and it is the pig that is associated with tribute from clients to lords: The Irish law tracts specify that “the name of the food that is carried to the lord before Christmas…is the Samhain pig.” The Catholic Church added its own explanation, depicting St. Patrick as giving the original Samhain pig to St. Martin, in gratitude for his tonsure.




Animals that might not make it through the winter were slaughtered at Samhain, to be consumed in communal feasts associated with the festival. The pastoral basis of the two halves of the year shows up in the terms used to describe food: meat was called “winter food” while dairy produce was called “summer food” or “white meat”. The timing of Samhain coincided with the availability of large stocks of food after the harvest, which is why this was the time that political assemblies were called, fairs and regional markets were held, horse races and other competitions were organized, and religious rituals were celebrated to mark the passing of the old year. According to the Irish sources, the Assembly of Tara, the seat of the High King of Ireland, the most important of the oneachs, or fairs, was held on Samhain. Alcoholic beverages such as mead and beer would also have been available in large quantities at this time of year, since the period just after the harvest meant a surplus of grain was available for the production of alcohol, which had to be consumed quickly in the days before refrigeration.

Click here to read this article from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Sharan Newman