The Irish Origins of Halloween

Nowadays, Halloween is celebrated throughout the western world, but it may come as a surprise to discover that many popular customs associated with this festival have their origins in ancient Irish culture…

The Celtic Festival of Samhain

Halloween is an atmospheric time of darker evenings, brighter moons and stormier skies and falls on the eve of the 1st November. This date correlates with the important ancient Irish festival of Samhain (pronounced “Souwen”), which was a celebration of the Celtic New Year. Our ancestors believed that at this time each year, the veil between our world and other unseen dimensions was at its thinnest, allowing all types of goblins, ghouls and spooky creatures to roam the countryside at night. This included the infamous banshee and a two-legged cloven hoofed creature with small horns called ‘The Pooka’.

Treat or Risk a Trick

Trick or Treating is a fun part of Halloween when kids get to dress up in spooky costumes and go door to door in their local neighbourhood collecting fruits, snacks and candys. It may be a surprise to learn, however, that this tradition also has its origins in Irish culture. It was the custom in olden times that wealthier merchants and farmers would be expected to give food and drink to their poorer neighbours on Halloween night. The only snag was that most Irish people were very superstitious and were scared to walk the roads, especially on Halloween of all nights, in case they would meet the pooka, a witch or other undesirable company. So they came up with a solution. It was thought that that by dressing up in ghoulish costumes – other genuine Halloween creatures would be fooled to believe they were one of their own!

Their costumes also served as a useful disguise in the event that they were met at a cottage door by a miserly person who refused to treat them with food or drink. The trick or ‘comeback’ would then come into play. Typical tricks were to take farmhouse gates and throw them into a nearby lake or climb up on the thatch and place a bag over their chimney – smoking the occupants out of their own houses.

How a Turnip Turned into a Pumpkin

Even the Halloween tradition of pumpkin carving has a fascinating Irish origin. Back in old Ireland, there were no calendars, newspapers or many reminders of what time of year it was. Therefore in order to give wealthy farmers and merchants advance notice that Halloween night was fast approaching and to stock their larders, trick or treaters would carve out a grotesque head from a large turnip and stick it up on a pole at a busy country crossroads.

When Irish emigrants settled in North America in their millions they brought many of their traditions with them and discovered that it was a lot easier to carve a pumpkin than a turnip!