Like their economy which was based on planting, growing and harvesting, the Celtic Calendar was centered around the Sun and agriculture. The four major feasts were Imbolc on February 1 which introduced the season of planting; Bealtine on May 1 which honored the god of cattle and crops and was associated with growth; Lughnasad on August 1 which signaled the harvest; and the final and most important feast of the year: Samhain (SAH-win). Celebrated on November 1, Samhain observed the end of one pastoral year and the beginning of another. To the Celts, Samhain was the point where the power of the sun began to wane, and fall under the growing power of the gods of darkness, winter, and the underworld. It was a day of bonfires lit to encourage the return of the sun, and to celebrate the fact that Oiche Samhain (EE-ha SOW-na), or the eve of Samhain had passed for another 12 months, for Oiche Samhain was a dangerous night indeed.
It was on that night that the veil between the natural and supernatural worlds were lowered, and residents of the underworld, both good and evil, were free to roam the earth. It was the holiday of the dead and the sidh (shee): the supernatural residents of the fairy kingdom, both fun-loving and fearful. It was a time sacred to the moon, and called for sacrifices to Crom Cruagh, Lord of the Mound, a golden idol surrounded by 12 stones on the plain of Moy Slecht in Cavan. Any who wandered out that night were in danger of being accosted by spirits, so most remained indoors. However, if one had to go out, he or she was advised to wear the skin of a sacrificed animal to disguise them self from the spirits. If an animal skin was not available, then the traveler would be wise to carry a candle in a hollowed-out turnip so that they would be mistaken for a Will-o-the-Wisp and be left alone.
With so many things to fear, the obvious question is why would anyone venture out at all, and the answer lies in the very same lowering of the veil. It’s a night when supernatural things are possible; when hidden things are visible; and, if one knew how to read the signs, a night when the future can be read for omens are clearest on Oiche Samhain. If, for example, a maiden were to wash her dress in a stream on Oiche Samhain and hang it on a bush to dry, the image of her future husband will appear beside it. It’s also a time when you can catch a glimpse of recently-departed loved ones, and perhaps secure some information from them – like where did they hide the money!
In spite of the temptation to see the future, the curious are cautioned, if you must venture out, be wary. You might hear music; the most beautiful music ever to come from fiddle or flute, but do not investigate, for the spirits will entice you away to the dance, and keep you entertained until the dawn breaks; then you will be trapped behind the veil. Tales are told of those lost to the Fairy kingdom who were not seen again until the following year when the veil was lowered again, and they were seen on the other side. Some have been enticed back to tell their stories, but they are very few, and they usually came to a violent end shortly after their return.
Another custom associated with Oiche Samhain was the leaving of food and drink on a doorstep to appease the wandering spirits so that they would trespass no further into a dwelling. If the offering was gone in the morning, it was a good sign that the spirits had accepted it, for no mortal man would dare steal a gift left for the dead. It was also a fortunate time for the hungry and homeless who wandered the roads and were willing to take that chance. Needless to say, there was great rejoicing when dawn broke, and the threat of Oiche Samhain had passed for another 12 months. The fear and the celebration associated with Samhain made it one of the hardest of the old Druidic feasts for the young Irish Church to dispel in the early centuries of Christianity, so it was decided to sanctify its meaning.
Henceforth, November 1 would be All Hallows Day – a day to honor the souls that had achieved heaven, followed by All Souls Day, a time to pray for the deceased who were still awaiting redemption. To the Irish however, All Hallows evening retained the connotation of a time dedicated to the spirits, and many of the ancient customs lived on. In time, the Christian meaning became accepted, at least on the surface. In many areas, the parish priest was given a polite nod of the head in acquiescence to the Church’s definition, while a wink of the eye signified that the ancient traditions were still being observed, just in case.
Stories of witches, goblins, and little people persisted, and the cautions proscribed as protection against the spirits of the netherworld remained as All Hallows Evening became Halloween – the only Celtic feast still observed on the modern calendar. Costumes are still much in evidence only they are the dime store variety instead of animal skins; pumpkins have replaced turnips as the Jack o Lantern; and the token food or candy given to visiting ghosts and goblins, who shout Trick or Treat, is a reminder of the food and drink freely given as a ransom against harm. I’d say the spirit of the occasion – no pun intended – is still intact. In recent years, a heightened awareness of the origins of Halloween has led to Celtic New Year celebrations in some areas, but there are still many who are not aware of the rich cultural heritage of our ancestors, who based their pastoral activities on a sophisticated celestial calendar fostered by a knowledge of astronomy unequalled in their time. As for the traditions associated with Halloween, well, think about it.
What happens after the demons in the dime-store costumes are tucked safely in bed with their treasure of candy bars and pennies secure in plastic pumpkins? What happens late at night when the streets are silent; what are those strange sounds carried on the wind each year; and what of the eerie occurrences reported each Halloween. Of all the Celtic feasts, why is it that only Oiche Samhain has survived. Is it because there is some substance to it after all. I can’t say for certain, but I know I’m staying at home. And if you must go out, please, whatever you do, be careful.