This post originally appeared on my Tumblr blog in October, 2016.
‘Tis the season! This is the time of year when an ancient Irish celebration turns our world black and orange and fills our streets with little (and sometimes not so little) ghosts, goblins, and superheroes.
Happy New Year!
In ancient Ireland, Oíche Shamna, or “Samhain Eve” (“Samhain,” pronounced “SOW-un” (first syllable rhymes with “cow”) is the Irish name for the month of November, and also the name of the Old Irish new year celebration) was a time when the veil between the world of the living and that of the dead was believed to grow thin.
People believed that the dead, both good and bad, could walk among the living on that night. They prepared offerings of food and drink to welcome their beloved dead, as well as to appease spirits who might mean to do them ill.
People also believed that the fairy folk were better able to “cross over” on such a night. Fairies in Irish mythology are not elegant elves or glittery pixies. They are supernatural creatures that are, at best, mischievous, and, at worst, truly terrifying.
For this reason, treats would also be left out to propitiate any visiting fairies in the hope that they would leave the household alone. This eventually evolved into young people dressing up as such creatures (or as deceased ancestors) and going from house to house collecting goodies. ‘
A Tradition that Spans Cultures
My recent travels took me to México, where I had the opportunity to view examples of Mexican art, both ancient and modern, with the guidance of local experts. It was quite an eye-opening experience!
I was struck by the similarities between the carvings in the ruins at Huatulco and Puerto Chiapas and some of the carvings on ancient Irish artifacts – particularly the use of the spiral and the “tree of life.”
The real eye-opener, however, was our visit to an art gallery in San José del Cabo that featured artwork based on the upcoming Méxican holiday Dia de los Muertos – The Day of the Dead.
Seeing a familiar holiday in a new light
Of course I was already familiar with Dia de los Muertos. I live in a place where it is widely celebrated. I’d never really given any thought, though, to how similar it is to the ancient Irish observance of Oíche Shamhna, which, over the span of centuries, eventually morphed into our modern Halloween.
The concept of honoring ancestors with their favorite foods and music; the sense of the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead growing thin, allowing the dead to visit the living; the acceptance of mortality as part of the cycle of life rather than something to be dreaded and shunned…all are significant aspects of both celebrations.
Even though I’ve celebrated Halloween all my life (and have known about its Irish roots since high school), and have lived among people who observe Dia de los Muertos for much of my adult life, just how closely the two celebrations are related never really clicked for me until that day in San José del Cabo.
Fascinating, isn’t it? Two completely different pre-Christian cultures, on two continents, evolving what is, essentially, the same celebration.
It gets even more fascinating when you look a little deeper and realize that similar celebrations have evolved on virtually every continent. Really makes you wonder if there might be something to it, doesn’t it?
In any case, I knew that I had to write something about Halloween and its Irish connections when I got home. The problem was (and is) that my travels have left me very short of time, and I wasn’t sure I could give the topic the justice it deserves.
Then I realized that I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel.
From the Archives
When I worked as a blog writer for Bitesize Irish in 2012 and 2013, I wrote extensively about Halloween, so I dug through my archives and found three posts that I think my followers will find interesting:
Oíche Shamhna (Halloween) Part 1 Happy New Year!: This post describes how the ancient Irish celebration evolved into the holiday we celebrate today.
Halloween Old Irish Style How the ancient Irish observed Oíche Shamhna, with suggestions incorporating some of these traditions into your own Halloween celebration.
Irish Language Phrases for Oíche Shamhna Irish words and phrases appropriate to the season, with phonetic pronunciation.
I hope you enjoy these posts. Please feel free to share the links, but please DON’T copy large blocks of text from them without the approval of the owners of Bitesize Irish.*
Oíche Shamhna shona daoibh go léir! (Happy Halloween to you all!)
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Bitesize offers extensive support, and additional resources, including frequent podcasts and a private Facebook group.
Anyway, if you’re looking for an affordable way to get started learning Irish, give it a look!
Slán go fóill, and Happy Trick or Treating!
In addition to being “The Geeky Gaeilgeoir,” Audrey Nickel is the author of The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook,” published by Bradan Press, Nova Scotia, Canada. For information about the book, including where to buy it, please visit http://www.bradanpress.com/irish-tattoo-handbook/