Samhain in Ireland, the old start of the year on the night from October 31st to November 1st, is it really still celebrated? Yes and no. With Halloween parades and carnivals entertaining the masses, and Irish children going trick-or-treating with plastic pumpkins you might be excused for thinking that Samhain is dead (excuse the pun). But stop right there ... is this not the one night that the dead can return, according to Irish folklore?
And indeed they do, as several customs observed on All Hallows' Eve still have a certain pagan ring to them. Though it has to be said that the fabric of tradition is rapidly wearing thin, that the worlds of Samhain and Halloween merge, with the latter getting the upper hand. And how should Samhain be celebrated, traditionally, anyway? Let us have a look …
Bonfires - Fires of Bones
A popular outdoor activity at Samhain was the lighting of a bonfire ... literally a "fire of bones", as the unused remains of slaughtered animals were hygienically disposed of. Well, anything to keep you warm on a night like this, one might guess.
In days of old, however, a rather alarming spectacle followed - once only the embers were glowing, mainly males snatched smoldering pieces and started throwing them at each other. Trying to avoid being hit at the same time. A sort of Irish dodgeball for pyromaniacs. The origins of this "sport" or "ritual" are totally obscure, though it has been branded pagan.
Today's bonfires rarely contain bones, and embers are not snatched from them - but added tires and (in the Republic at least illegal) fireworks make them unforgettable, if only for the stench and noise. Halloween is one of the busiest times for Ireland's firefighters (though the bonfires around July 12th in the North are a contender), and councils try to eliminate illegal (and often dangerous, both to the environment and the surrounding houses) bonfires by simply bulldozing the site in the afternoon.
Getting Treats – Where Samhain Meets Halloween
Traditional festivities at Samhain also included groups of young men in costume, making an enormous amount of noise, while going from door to door asking for contributions to their revels. "Threatening" the occupants with often nonsensical rhymes, they asked for food and drink - which was (more or less) happily provided. The young men were commonly called "guisers", "vizards" (sic), hugadais or buachaillí tuí.
In Kilkenny and some other areas a láir bhán ("white mare", a man in a horse costume) led the procession. The carrying of lanterns seems to have been almost universal in contrast - every young man had a carved turnip with a candle, to illuminate the way and to scare onlookers. This might well have been the origin of the "Jack O'Lantern".
If you want to make your own Irish Samhain lantern, simply get a good-sized turnip, and treat it as you would a pumpkin at Halloween. After a few minutes you will, however, notice a certain difference - unless you resort to power tools, carving a lantern from a turnip will take a lot of effort and strength.
Other Wanderers in the Samhain Night
According to Irish Samhain folklore, you may well encounter some very strange beings out and about as well during the night.
Ghosts, deceased ancestors, the pooka ... all held at bay by light, fortunately. In case the light carried (or still naturally available) should prove insufficient to deter those spooks, people made sure to confuse any malevolent "others" by dressing strangely.
If of can believe the old folks’ tales, an encounter with the pooka, a very mischievous spirit, was most undesirable at any time, but more than likely at Samhain. The pooka would appear in the guise of a black horse, and offer you a ride home. Okay, a talking horse should be warning enough, but some people were daft (or drunk) enough to accept the lift. Once mounted, they then found that they could not dismount, and that the pooka would take several shortcuts through brambles, hedges, gorse, and whatever else could harm and hurt them.
And if you were really unlucky, the pooka for the grand final dived into the nearest lake or river, keeping the rider under water long enough to drown.
Practical Samhain Jokes
Bonfires, ghosts, lanterns, undead, costume, mischievous spirits - all the ingredients of a modern Halloween are there. Mind you - this time was also a favorite for dares. Like placing some money in a bible or hymnal, then leave same on the cemetery and tell everybody that whoever brings the book back during the night may keep the money. Though some played a dirty hand, donning funerary clothing and watching over the money themselves ...
Blessing the House at Samhain
One of the (albeit more Christian) traditions at Samhain, a time of rest and renewal, was the construction of a humble parshell (or parshal) - a cross manufactured of two thin wooden staves, about six to nine inches long. Straw was woven tightly in a square pattern around the crossed staves, leaving an inch or so uncovered at the ends. The finished parshell was then hung above the door inside the house, replacing last years' (a similar tradition to the St. Brigid’s Cross).
The old parshell was reverently taken down, and placed somewhere else in the house or the barn. Children were additionally blessed by sprinkling them with holy water or placing some burnt wood into their beds ... getting wet and then lying with cinders might add to the spooky atmosphere even today.
And as many people stayed at home on Samhain anyway, trying to divine the future was another popular (though definitely pagan) pastime.