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'Samhain was an obvious time to commemorate the dead'

A historian talks us through some Halloween traditions, from preparing the house for spirits to trick or treating.

Image: National Folklore Collection UCD

MANY PEOPLE WILL be celebrating Halloween this weekend – there’ll be fancy dress parties, trick or treating and other events taking place to mark the occasion.

But where does it all stem from?

Dr Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh, interim director of the National Folklore Collection at University College Dublin, recently spoke to TheJournal.ie about the origins of some Halloween traditions.

Mac Cárthaigh notes that, from earliest recorded history in Ireland, Halloween, All Hallows’ Eve or Oíche Shamhna was considered a turning point in the calendar, marking the end of the harvest season.

“The twofold division of the year – from Bealtaine (May Day) to Samhain, and Samhain to Bealtaine – appears to be a very ancient European concept.

“As a significant point in the calendar, it is not surprising that Samhain should be a focus for much folk custom and belief.

Figuratively, it marks the close of the season of light and the beginning of the dark half of the year, and was therefore perceived as a liminal moment in time when movement between the otherworld and this world was possible. Thus various supernatural beings and the dead were believed to visit the living, and the living could visit the otherworld.

“Because Samhain marked the commencement of the darker period of the year it was an obvious time for a festival to commemorate the dead.”

Mac Cárthaigh says some people “would put out a little festive meal on 31 October and/or 1 November for their [deceased] relatives”. He says others may have believed that fairies or a púca – from the Irish word for ghost – might visit their house.

M003.03.00444 Telling ghost stories is another popular tradition Source: National Folklore Collection UCD

“People would leave out a symbolic meal on the table and sweep and clean the house. So, in the event the fairies entered, they wouldn’t create any damage,” he says, adding there is “a question mark over the scale of belief in that”.

Mac Cárthaigh notes that Samhain, along with other pagan rituals, was taken over by the Catholic Church.

He recalls how All Saints’ Day was originally in May before being moved to 1 November. Many people still visit the graves of their relatives on this day and the day after, 2 November: All Souls’ Day.

Trick or treating

Aside from eating certain foods such as colcannon, barmbrack, fruit and nuts, many people played games like bobbing for apples – and some still do.

Mac Cárthaigh tells us there are accounts of people – traditionally men and boys – going from door-to-door in disguise singing rhymes and playing music in exchange for food “well back into the 19th century”.

He says houses that rewarded people were safe, while those who turned people away were considered a target for pranks such as taking gates off hinges or covering the chimney.

point Young people sometimes attempted to predict future events, playing games to see if would they become rich or get married Source: National Folklore Collection UCD

Mac Cárthaigh says it’s “curious” that Halloween is often seen as an American tradition as its customs were introduced to the United States by European immigrants, including people from Ireland, about 200 years ago.

“In the interim it has developed and taken root in America.”

Mac Cárthaigh says American films and TV shows have help to commercialise and, in some respects, change Halloween.

“As a child I would have said ‘Help the halloween party’ [while going door-to-door], now children say ‘Trick or treat’ – that’s an American phrase. Halloween has come back to haunt us from America, so to speak,” he quips.

Mac Cárthaigh notes that there has long been “tension of some kind” between authorities and the general public at Halloween given the “revelry and mischief” associated with the tradition.

He describes fireworks and bonfires as more recent manifestations of this.

Mac Cárthaigh gave a talk about Halloween customs at the National Library of Ireland on Friday. More information about folklore can be found on dúchas.ie or on UCD’s website.

Read: The making of Dracula: How Bram Stoker’s ‘in-betweener’ status inspired horror

Read: Fighting over the ring in the barmbrack is the greatest Irish Halloween tradition

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About the author:

Órla Ryan

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