While a lot of Halloween / Samhain traditions come from Ireland, many of them also come from Great Britain – Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and parts of England. Similar traditions have also survived to some extent in continental Europe, particularly in Brittany.
Halloween bonfires were a big tradition in Ireland on October 31st. In Britain, especially England and Northern Ireland, the tradition is moved to November 5 with children begging ‘a penny for the guy’, which is a plush effigy of Guido (Guy) Fawkes to be burnt on the bonfire, although in Northern Ireland this was / is sometimes an effigy of the Catholic Pope.
On the Isle of Man, New Years Day was considered November 1 until relatively recently. The mummers’ play, a form of re-enactment of ancient pagan beliefs, would take place with mummers going door-to-door on Halloween, singing a song: “Tonight is New Years Eve.” , Hop-tu-Naa! The children also participated by begging and saying nursery rhymes or giving some other kind of performance.
Also popular throughout Ireland and the British Isles was for young people to engage in harmless misdeeds – for example, removing shed doors, moving things to unusual places and letting cows out of a field, etc. It was common for young people to impersonate the spirits of the country, but now the American custom of dressing up in spooky costumes has become popular.
Joe McGowan tells in Echoes of a Savage Land how he grew up in Sligo (North West Ireland):
Years ago there weren’t any trick-or-treaters in Sligo. But the spirits were out! Evidence of the previous night’s activities greeted the faithful as they went to mass on All Saints’ Day; carts left with a wheel or without wheels, missing gates, roads strewn with cabbage … A favorite trick was to fix the front door and the back door of a neighbor’s house from the outside, then get on the roof and plugging the chimney, sending clouds of smoke into the kitchen below.
Another prank of choice was to bring the cart to a door, push the trees through the bars, then yoke the ass on the other side. It was a pretty unusual show in the morning and a lot of fun, for everyone except the team owner.
… a farmer well known for his bad temper entertained the whole parish for days with his efforts to chase a “strange” horse, which later turned out, after a downpour, to be his own horse, disguised by a coat of whitewash.
In modern Ireland, such pranks are still quite popular – like turning road signs to point the wrong way or leaving traffic cones in silly places. More common in general in Ireland and in most countries is the “trick-or-treat”, which most often involves a treat. However, some tricks do happen – like blue mouth or pepper candy and being sprayed with water guns and being targeted by firecrackers or buckets of water etc.
In Ireland, the Tuatha Dé Danann were considered to have power over the fertility of the land, and similar beliefs existed in parts of Britain. It was deemed necessary to appease them as they could bring either prosperity or pestilence and famine – sick cattle and poor crops. People recognized this power and made offerings on the ground, usually milk, sometimes meat (most often pork), and also cakes. This would occur on all four Celtic festivals, including Samhain.
It was also common in Samhain for people wearing masks (mummers) and costumes, traditionally made of straw, to roam villages and towns begging for food, drink or money. If people were stingy, it was believed that they would receive bad luck and misfortune in the coming year.
A very similar tradition survives today in Dingle, Ireland on St. Stephen’s Day / Wren Day (December 26), possibly again transferred from Samhain. Teams of people (including musicians) representing different streets or districts of the city (mostly men) roam the whole city in straw costumes and gradually get drunk. When the teams meet, they have a simulated battle. Once it’s over, those who are not only fit for bed retire to the pub and we drink more.
In some cases, Samhain or Christmas / New Year processions involve a horse figure, often with snapping jaws, called the White Mare, Hobby Horse, Láir Bhán (Irish) or Mari Lwyd (Welsh), representing the sidhe spirits (Tuatha Dé Danann) of the earth riding across the land. In Limerick it was called the “blanket horse” (Capall an tSusa) and throughout the country the horse entourage bore names such as the straw boys (buachaillí tuí), the blankets, the hugadais or the visards. To disrespect the Lár / Láir Bhán and his entourage was to invite famine, disaster and general bad luck on yourself and your household.
Some believed that in Samhain, the fairies could turn the yellow flowering grass, ragwort (usually seeded), called buachalán buí, into spiritual horses and use them for riding through the night. Sometimes a human might be able to reach them, as long as they did as they were told. In one story, a young man is invited by the Fairy King to ride with them on a white calf but tells him not to speak. During their adventures they travel to Scotland, but after the young man utters an exclamation about the calf making an excellent leap, the fairies all disappear, leaving him on a more than a day’s journey home. in Ireland.
It has been deemed advisable to stay away from cemeteries on Halloween night, as the dead may well be resurrected. Some believed that seeing a ghost or a resurrected dead in Samhain would cause instant death!
Staying away from ringforts, burial mounds, and burial mounds was also considered a wise decision, as it was often believed that lights, dancing sounds, and laughter could be heard in Samhain as the sidhe came out of the world. It was also believed that the spirits of the dead could emerge into the world of the living through these places. Likewise, the sidhe or the dead can kidnap the living, bring them back gallant or even send them back to the next world:
It is considered that on All Saints’ Eve, Hob-goblins, evil spirits and fairies revel and travel abroad in large numbers. The dark and brooding Phooka (púca) is then particularly mischievous and many mortals are abducted in fairyland. These people taken to the raths are often seen around this time by their living friends, and usually accompany a fairly cavalcade. If you meet the fairies, it is said, on All Saints’ Day, and throw the dust caught under your feet at them, they will be forced to hand over any human captive belonging to their company.
– Lageniensis, Irish Folklore, 1870
In Britain and Ireland, a new fire was brought into the bonfire house to start the hearth fires that had been put out before nightfall. This on a smaller scale echoes the ignition of the royal fire in Tara (probably from the Tlachtga fire) and the subsequent ignition of fires across the country. This tradition has been transferred to Christmas in many cases with the lighting of the Yule log. In Ireland, fires are much less frequent than a few decades ago, but in Dublin in particular, the tradition of the Halloween bonfire still survives, although it is discouraged by the police for reasons of health and of security.
* Samhain: The Roots of Halloween, is the 8th book by Luke Eastwood, published by The History Press, it is available at lukeeastwood.com and most online booksellers.
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