Feile na Bealtaine is Irish for ‘The Baltane Festival’, a seasonal Gaelic event that traditionally falls on the first Monday of May but these days falls on the 1st of May. We can trace the name back to the old Irish words Bel Taine meaning ‘bright fire’, however the tradition extends much further back in history than medieval times.
Pre-Christian Celtic culture recognised the two major annual transitions as Oiche Shamhna (Halloween), which is the first day of the Celtic year, and Bealtaine (Beltane), which is the midpoint of the year. Oiche Shamhna signifies the transition into the dark while Bealtaine signifies the transition into the light. This shows us how the Celtic mind worked. Just like a seed everything start in the darkness, germinating and pushing through to the light where life is lived before returning to the earth and the darkness. Likewise, the day begins with twilight, where we go into the dark, and wake half way through to see the day until we return to twilight.
Like Oiche Shamhna, Bealtaine was a time of purification and transition when the aos sí (the Fae) are most active. Lá Bealtaine (Day of Beltane) was the time of year to herd the cows out to pasture for the summer. They were herded through fires after druids chanted incantations on them. Offerings of food and drink and bonfires were common place as it was a time of ritual to bless the growth of crops and cattle, and to protect the people. Milk was poured across the threshold of the house to stop the faeries from entering and cow blood was offered at faerie forts. May blossoms such as primrose and hawthorn petals were placed around doors to ward off evil. And flowers, ribbons and bright shells were used to decorate thorn bushes to make Crann Bealtaine (a Maypole) and the people visited the holly wells.
In ‘Irish Folk Ways’ by E. Estyn Evans in the 1930s, he writes of the Maypole tradition:
‘It is a custom in the Taghmon district to hold celebrations on the first day of May with a May bush. A number of boys go out in the country armed with a saw or hatched. They cut a blackthorn bush or sceach. They then get an old bucket and fill it with clay. They stick the bush down in it and take it to a waste bit of land in the neighbour-hood of the village. Then they start to decorate the bush with coloured papers, candles, painted eggshells and pictures. Then they select a king and queen. The king and queen take it up and march around the streets with it. The people give them pennies. Then in the end they burn the May bush and spend their money. This custom has been carried on in Taghmon as long as the oldest resident can remember‘
While the Bealtaine fires disappeared around the 1950s, today the celebration is reigniting around Ireland and the world as we reclaim our Gaelic roots and customs. So today, on Lá Bealtaine, bear in mind our Gaelic traditions and use a few phrases ‘as Gaeilge’ (in Irish):
Scéal ó Shamhain go Bealtaine – meaning ‘a long drawn out story’. It is a story from November to May and an Irish winter would feel like a long drawn out time.
Bliain chun na Bealtaine – meaning ‘a year come May’.
Bláth bán na Bealtaine – the hawthorn flowers that come out in May.
Oíche Bhealtaine – May eve
Slán go fóill agus tugaigí aire daoibh féin
(Bye for now and take care)
The Gaelic Tradition of Halloween
Halloween was always important to me but it also felt wrong. For decades this celebration felt out of touch with the seasons and devoid of authentic, traditional meaning. I knew this was a combination of living in the southern hemisphere, when the festival originated in the northern hemisphere, and that modern commercial culture had diluted the true source of the celebration. What I didn’t realise was just how much of my Gaelic heritage I could reconnect with today and how much of the traditional meanings still actively survive in Ireland. Learning about Irish culture, history and Gaeilge (the language) has opened my eyes to the authentic festival of Halloween and put me in touch that part of me that always longed for a real connection with Celtic traditions.
So, I write this blog on the day before Halloween in spirit of the traditions held in Ireland, Scotland, Canada and the United States (yes, there are festivals held with respect to the traditional meaning of Halloween in these countries). Being Gael-Astrálach, I feel torn between longing to celebrate a tradition that is rightly my heritage and, perhaps because I’m sensitive to the seasons and the land, reluctant because this time of year doesn’t feel right down here in Australia. We are going into summer, not winter, and the veil between worlds is not thin for another six months. However, I will honour my connection with the lands where my Gaelic ancestors came from not too many generations ago…
Oíche Shamhna (Halloween, or All Hallow’s Eve – meaning night of the ancient Samhain festival on the 1st November), is perhaps the most important of the Gaelic celebrations. It signifies the end of the old year and the beginning of the new year, where we shift from the lighter half of the year (samhradh – summer) to the darker part of the year (geimhreadh – winter). In Celtic tradition, night precedes day and winter precedes summer, just as a seed is nurtured in the dark depths of the ground before it grows towards, and finally into, the light before maturing and eventually harvested. But Oíche Shamhna is the gap between the old and new and therefore stands still in time. It is the equivalent of twilight but much more powerful.
The celebration of Oíche Shamhna is where the veil between worlds is at its thinnest, allowing the passing through of spirits of ancestors and foe a like. So now is the time where our predecessors are to be honoured and mischievous spirits are to be warded off. The tradition of wearing costumes and masks is to hide our identities from shades intending us harm, while we prepare the fires and food to share with our clan – living and dead.
Irish mythology tells us of Donn (the word for brown), Lord of the dead, who walks the Earth as the sun wanes and loses its control. In his wake, he is followed by a host of creatures from the Otherworld such as faeries, ghosts and ancient Gods and Sovereign Goddesses of the Tuatha Dé Danann. The festival is associated with Tlachtga (a hill named after the daughter of a powerful druid, Mogh Roith) and Cnoc na Teamhrach (Hill of Tara), both bearing ancient sites in the Brú na Bóinne (Boyne Valley). The Great Fire Festival began at the Tlachtga on the eve of Samhain while Tara is associated with the rising sun. Dumha na nGiall (Mound of Hostages) at Tara is approximately 4,500 to 5,000 years old, preceding the arrival of the Celts around 2,500 and suggesting Samhain may have been celebrated in pre-Celtic times.
So, tomorrow night when you celebrate Halloween, remember its real name is Oíche Shamhna – pronounced “ee how-na” – and be careful not to walk the streets too late or forget to leave gifts out to appease the wandering spirits!
Slán go fóill agus tugaigí aire daoibh féin
(Bye for now and take care)
Reference: Go raibh maith agat newgrange.com – http://www.newgrange.com/samhain.htm