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