A history of Halloween and its Irish roots

Contributed Halloween carved pumpkin

In New Zealand Halloween is in the middle of spring . We therefore don’t have many of the same ‘Fall’ traditions usually associated with this time of the year in other parts of the world. Growing up we never carved pumpkins or went pumpkin picking. Because it’s spring, Halloween is usually the time of year people plant pumpkins, rather than harvest them.  Halloween is at a time when we’re getting ready for summer, not preparing to wrap up for winter.

Growing up in New Zealand I went trick-or-treating every year for Halloween. I donned witches attire and fairy costumes and trotted off down the street with family and friends in tow. As we grew older we learned the best houses to go to — the kind old ladies who give out full sized crunchie bars or flakes — and the houses we should avoid. I remember coming home each year, tipping my bucket of goodies out onto the living room floor and scouring through the nights haul. For me, this was Halloween.

I thought it would be interesting  to look at my own heritage and talk to my Grandparents about their experiences with Halloween. My Papa moved to New Zealand from Ireland in 1956  when he was 20. My Nana moved from England in 1955 when she was 15.  A few years ago my brother and I both applied for our Irish citizenship and now hold both a New Zealand and an Irish passport.

Turns out, Ireland is widely recognized as the origin of Halloween.

A history of Halloween: the basics

You can find a detailed history of Halloween on history.com . Here, it says that Halloween “has roots in age-old European traditions. It originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, when people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off ghosts. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a time to honor all saints; soon, All Saints Day incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain. The evening before was known as All Hallows Eve, and later Halloween. Over time, Halloween evolved into a day of activities like trick-or-treating and carving jack-o-lanterns.”

According to irishcentral.com, Samhain is seen as a night when the divide between the worlds of the living and the dead is especially thin. The Samhain festival marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, the “darker half” of the year.

The Celts who celebrated the festival of Samhain lived in the area that is now known as Ireland. Ireland therefore, is widely considered the origin or birthplace of Halloween as we know it.

Halloween in Ireland 

According to my Granddad, he did not go trick-or-treating for Halloween, but he said that may have reflected it being still close to the end of the war. Although for me Halloween isn’t Halloween without trick-or-treating, he did say they had some other traditions that don’t sound like a bad substitute.

Food:

  • Barm Brack
    • Apparently, this is a sweet yeast loaf filled with mixed fruit and peel. The fruit is soaked in strong cold tea and whiskey overnight. Baking powder can be substituted for yeast on some occasions. 
    • While this is served at other times of the year too, at Halloween special charms are added to the mixture. Whoever gets a charm in their slice is said to be subject to its influence.
      These charms and their meanings include:
      • Coin: coming in to money
      • Stick: will not be married in the following year
      • Ring: will be married
      • Cloth: poverty
  • Colcannon
    • My Granddad’s family always had Colcannon for dinner on Halloween. This is essentially mashed potatoes and onions with curley kale all mixed and eaten with lots of butter. Wrapped tokens could also be hidden in this dish for the children to find.

Games:

  • Apple Bobbing
    • This is a game I’m familiar with and one I played a lot at birthday parties when I was a kid — but never at Halloween. It involves filling a large bowl/basin/tub with water, floating apples in it and having to recover one with your mouth while your hands are behind your back
  • Snap Apple
    • Suspend an apple on string and the children are blindfolded and have their hands tied behind their back. First to get a bite out of the apple will be first to marry, or get a prize.
    • In a variation of this game you can make a wooden cross suspended on a string. Place pieces of apple on two ends and soap on the other two. Blindfold a person and make them put their hands behind their back. Spin the cross and the person must bite the end of the cross they stop at.

While these do not cover the entire traditions of Halloween in Ireland, they are what my Granddad remembers. To see a broader idea of Irish traditions you can check out this article on the Top 10 Irish traditions for Halloween. There’s also a recipe for Colcannon if you want to try it yourself.

Turnip carving

According to my Granddad, turnips, not pumpkins were hollowed and a hot coal or candle was placed inside. According to theguardian.com, this “originated as an Irish folk tale about a man named Jack who, after trying to trick the devil, was cursed to roam the earth with only a burning coal held inside a hollowed-out turnip.” Hence the name “Jack-O-lantern.”

The Irish would place these Jack-O-Lantern’s beside their homes to frighten away “Stingy Jack” and other wandering evil spirits and travelers. When this became a Halloween tradition, they were then used as guides for people dressed in costume on Samhain, according to irishcentral.com.

Apparently, when millions of Irish immigrated to America (especially during to the Great Famine) the tradition changed to carving pumpkins instead of turnips — either because turnips weren’t so plentiful there, or because they discovered pumpkins are easier to carve.

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How is Halloween celebrated in your part of the world?Wilbs

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