Pronounced: Sow-win, Sow-wen, or Sah-vihn
Tentative Date: Northern Hemisphere – October 31st; Southern Hemisphere – April 30th.
Brief History: The beginning of winter and probably the most celebrated holiday, Samhain is mostly about ancestors, death, and new beginnings. With the boundaries between this world and the Otherworld thin, this was a time for protections and caution — as well has playing mischief!
Few ways to celebrate:
- Honoring ancestors*
- Story telling — especially spooky ones
- Playing games — especially spooky ones
- Make a Parshall cross
- Carving a turnip (or pumpkin)
- Dressing up in costumes
- Divination (including weather divination)
- Grand feast and/or ‘dumb supper’
* cultural ancestors, blood ancestors, religious ancestors — all valid!
Samhain is seen as being very liminal. In particular, the Dead are thought to be able to return to their loved ones this night. The Fair Folk are also considerably active. Kevin Danaher writes: “[The] denizens of the other world were abroad […] and, however great the fright, nobody would really be surprised to meet with the Púca, or the Black Pig, or the horrible headless apparition, the dallachán, or to awake in the night and find the returned dead of the family seated around the kitchen hearth” (page 207.)
The Dead returning was seen both as a blessing and a curse. Talking to or seeing one’s deceased loved ones is desirable, but there was the deceased people displeased with the living would also come to haunt their adversaries. Still, the overall theme of the night was to uplift the dead ancestors and to remember them.
Lora O’Brien writes about honoring the dead with a dumb supper:
“Many homes in Ireland still lay the ‘dumb supper’. This is the placement of one full meal on Samhain night (that is, the 31st), at the family’s table. This usually consisted of a dinner in the evening, with an empty chair available, for any passing spirits who might drop in. The windows and doors are left unlocked all night (by those who deem it safe to do so, locked doors are an unfortunate factor of this rather less trusting world in which we live).”
The Fair Folk, or Fae or Good Folk, were active this time of year — having their own celebrations in the landscape. The Púca, or Phooka, is on the prowl to spoil wild plants and create mischief. Unsuspecting humans traveling are at risk to being abducted by the Fair Folk. One way to stop the abduction was to throw the dust taken from under one’s feet and throw it at the Fair Folk. Turning one’s coat inside out is another method. To avoid being lead astray at all, carrying a black handled knife or having a steel needle stuck in one’s coat collar or sleeve are preemptive measures.
For protection, some people would weave a cross called a “Parshall.” Danaher quotes the Journal of the Kildare Archaeological Society:
It was customary, too, on this Eve to weave a cross called a “Parshall”. This was done by laying two little sticks, seven inches in length, cross-ways; then starting at their junction by weaving a wheaten straw under one arm, over the next, and so on (adding a fresh straw when the other was used up) until about an inch from the ends of the sticks, when the straw-end was made fast. The “Parshall” was fixed over the dwelling-house doorway on the inside, with the object of warding off ill-luck, sickness, and witchcraft for a twelvemonth. A new one was made the following All Hallows Eve, and put in place of the old one, which was shifted to another part of the house, or to the cow-stable, the following words being used in removing it: –“Fonstarensheehy”. (208)
Divination was popular at this time of year. One such game was pouring melted lead through a key and divining from the shapes formed. Another involved eating a salt herring in three bites in hopes that the person would dream of their future spouse giving them a glass of water in their sleep. Another divination was putting items into food, symbolizing some event for the upcoming year — marriage, a new career, death, loneliness, etc. Yet another example of divination done was putting salt into thimbles and designating each thimble to a member of the house; if any of the thimbles fell over during the night, that person would die within the next twelve months.
Simple weather divinations were also done on this night. For example, the wind was observed at midnight and which direction it came in foretold how the wind would mostly blow that winter. If there was a moon, people looked to it for indications of winter weather: a clear night meant fine weather, a clouded moon meant rain, and racing clouds meant storms. The last weather omen described involved putting a stick or plough-coulter into the river bank to show the river rising or falling. Some read the omen as indicating winter floods while others thought it indicated if the farm produce would rise or fall the upcoming year.
Like the other holidays, feasting and merrymaking were central to the celebration. With the influence of Feast of All the Saints, the traditional meals this time of year were often vegetarian. A favorite dish in particular that Kevin Danaher points out is colcannon, which is “mashed boiled potatoes mixed with cooked green cabbage and chopped raw onion, seasoned with pepper and salt” (page 204.) Other favorites included stampy, boxty, oatcakes and batter pancakes, dumplings, apple-cakes, blackberry pies, and puddings of various sorts. Other food items included apples and nuts, which were often used for games — such as bobbing for apples, or divining by roasting nuts.
Bonfires were also common for Samhain night. They might have been originally created for cleansing and banishing evil spirits, as is common with Bealtaine fires. Perhaps the fire helped bring light to the darkness enveloping the land. Whatever the reason, bonfires continue to be a staple of this holiday.
“Guisers”, or people who dressed up in masks or painted faces, were common place and what started the tradition of dressing up in costumes for Halloween. Children would dress up and go to passers-by or knock on neighbor doors with the request of apples and nuts. There were also young adults, mostly young men, who would go about to houses and good-humoredly demand food or money and the house would cheerfully agree.
Games were also typical of this night. Kevin Danaher writes about the variation of games seen:
As we might expect, the type of game played on Hallow E’en depended very much upon the composition of the company gathered to celebrate the feast. In a household of a father, mother and younger children, one would naturally expect to see only small children’s games, while a group of elderly people would engage in a game of cards or in storytelling, reciting poems or ‘drawing down old times’.
In a group of adolescents and young adults, however, more lively games, of the type of ‘blind man’s buff’, ‘shuffle the brogue’ or ‘four corner fool’, or tricks and contests of skill and strength were usual. (page 214)
A favorite was issuing of dares — or challenges to do something daring or difficult feat. Examples in the book of dares include climbing a barn house, jumping over a milk-churn, and of course going into spooky eerie places.
Pranking others also occurred, particularly to those who were deemed “cranky” or “unpleasant” or who didn’t contribute to the guisers festivities. Pranks included pouring water down the chimney, knocking on the person’s door and fleeing, and other sorts of booby-traps. Pranks involving the superstitions of the Fair Folk and other spirits were also common.
Lora O’Brien mentions in her article about the culling of livestock. The killing of agricultural livestock was most likely offered up to the spirits, as well as a way to make sure the size of the livestock herd didn’t drain the collective resources. She writes, “So it was a time of sacrifice and death, but also of cleansing, cutting out the old stock and preparing those remaining for the coming Winter.”
- Danaher, Kevin. “Samhain.” The Year in Ireland. Cork: Mercier, 1972. 200-227. Print.
O’Brien, Lora. “Irish Samhain – Halloween in Ireland.” Lora O’Brien. Lora O’Brien, 21 Oct. 2014. Web. 16 Oct. 2016.