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The Irish Origins of Halloween: Samhain Festival

Almost everyone the world over knows about Halloween. From trick or treating to bonfires, and pumpkin carving to scary games and stories, the holiday has become a staple in the western world but do you know its origins? 

It might come as a surprise but the holiday as we know it today actually originates from here on our very own Emerald Isle!

Ireland is known for its ancient history and Halloween is just another element of that, beginning in Celtic times, so we thought we’d take a look at the origins with the big day right around the corner. 

The Origins of Halloween

This Celtic festival or celebration, which we now know as being Halloween, was originally called Samhain and it was also celebrated on October 31st and November 1st much like today. 

The original celebration, part of the Gaelic calendar alongside three other events known as Imbolc, Bealtaine and Lughnasadh, occurred more than 2000 years ago and was seen as a ceremony to recognise the passing of summer.

As we’ve seen with other elements of Irish history, most notably the monument at Newgrange, the sun and solstices played a huge part in the lives of our ancestors. As a result Samhain was created as a pagan ritual to highlight this important moment in the calendar, honour the dead and give sacrifice to Pagan Gods for a safe winter ahead. 

Irish Halloween Traditions

Jackolanternirish

Interestingly it isn’t just the festival or holiday that originated from Samhain but many of the traditions we still repeat and enjoy today.

Bonfires, an important part of the Halloween celebrations, originate from this Celtic festival. During Samhain they were lit to protect and cleanse the community and were also seen as a channel for closer interaction with the world beyond the living.

Trick or Treating, a Halloween pastime celebrated all around the world, was originally called “Souling” and was seen as a method of resembling Gods in an attempt to placate them for the winter months ahead. Instead of sweets some participators received “Soul Cake”, a flattened bread baked with fruit.

Pumpkin carving, or the carving of Jack-O-Lanterns as it’s known in the US and Canada, also finds its origins in Samhain although the originals, carved from vegetable or swede, looked slightly creepier than what we have today.

The origin of carving Jack-O-Lanterns is unclear but an old Irish folk tale tells of Jack, a lazy Irish Blacksmith, who tricks the Devil and traps him using a cross and refuses to free him until the Devil agrees not to take his soul when he dies. Upon his death Jack is rejected from both Heaven and Hell but the Devil does throw him a flame that has come directly from Hell and will never extinguish so Jack is forced to carve a lantern out of a turnip that he may find his way as he wanders the Earth for all Eternity.

As a result he became known as Jack of the Lantern or Jack-O-Lantern and the tale lives on today.

These are just a few key examples but it’s incredible to think that almost every Halloween tradition we celebrate today originates from a Pagan ritual first enacted over 2000 years ago!

Modern Irish Halloween Events

Nowadays things are much the same. Halloween is still an important date in the calendar but it’s now primarily an event for children with boys and girls up and down the country looking forward to spooky activities, mid-term breaks and plenty of treats! 

One of the biggest events is the huge street party in Derry. This annual event is one of Ireland’s longest running public parties and also officially the biggest street party in the country!

There also countless other events up and down the country with parades in Dublin and Belfast as well as plenty of private parties, firework displays and thousands of trick or treating children!

Whatever you’re doing over the holiday we hope you have a great time.

Happy Halloween from the Emerald Heritage team! 

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