More Treats than Tricks: Irish Halloween Traditions

More Treats than Tricks: Irish Halloween Traditions

How Hallowe’en travelled to the US with Irish emigrants to come back as the festival we now know.

Commonly thought of as an American festival, with all its candy and trick or treating, it actually has its origins from the Celtic immigrants that moved to the country in the 1800s.
The roots of Halloween are pagan as it is typically linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain”, which comes from the Old Irish for “summer’s end”. Samhain (pronounced sah-in or soh-in) was the first and most important of the four quarter days in the medieval Gaelic calendar and was celebrated in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man.

More Treats than Tricks: Irish Halloween Traditions

It was held on or about 31 October – 1 November and kindred festivals were held at the same time of year by the Celts. From at least the 16th century, the festival included mumming and guising in Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man and Wales. This involved people going house-tohouse in costume (or in disguise), usually reciting verses or songs in exchange for food.

It may have come from the custom of souling (see below) or it may have a Celtic folk origin, with the costumes being a means of imitating, or disguising oneself from, the Aos Sí.
It is suggested that the mummers and guisers “personify the old spirits of the winter, who demanded reward in exchange for good fortune”. In Scotland, youths went house-tohouse on 31 October with masked, painted or blackened faces, often threatening to do mischief if they were not welcomed.

F. Marian Mc- Neill suggests the ancient festival included people in costume representing the spirits, and that faces were marked (or blackened) with ashes taken from the sacred bonfire. In parts of Wales, men went about dressed as fearsome beings called gwrachod.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, young people in Glamorgan and Orkney dressed as the opposite gender. In parts of southern Ireland, the guisers included a hobby horse. A man dressed as a Láir Bhán (white mare) led youths house-to-house reciting verses—some of which had pagan overtones—in exchange for food. If the household donated food it could expect good fortune from the ‘Muck Olla’; not doing so would bring misfortune. Elsewhere in Europe, mumming and hobby horses were part of other yearly festivals.

However, in the Celtic speaking regions they were “particularly appropriate to a night upon which supernatural beings were said to be abroad and could be imitated or warded off by human wanderers”. From at least the 18th century, “imitating malignant spirits” led to playing pranks in Ireland and the Scottish Highlands.

More Treats than Tricks: Irish Halloween Traditions

Wearing costumes and playing pranks at Halloween spread to England in the 20th century. The “traditional illumination for guisers or pranksters abroad on the night in some places was provided by turnips or mangel wurzels, hollowed out to act as lanterns and often carved with grotesque faces”.

Some of those who made them said the lanterns represented the spirits, while others said they were used to ward off evil spirits. They were common in parts of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands in the 19th century, as well as in Somerset (see Punkie Night). In the 20th century they spread to other parts of England and became generally known as jack-o’-lanterns.

Irish Halloween Traditions

The Barmbrack traditionally contained various objects baked into the bread and was used as a fortune telling game. In the brack would be a pea, a stick, a piece of cloth, a small coin and a ring, with each carrying a meaning to the person who received it in their slice. Getting the pea would mean that the person would not marry that year; the stick, would have an unhappy marriage or continually be in disputes; the cloth or rag, would have bad luck or be poor; the coin, would enjoy good fortune or be rich; and the ring, would be wed within the year. These days, commercially produced barmbracks still include a toy or brass ring.

More Treats than Tricks: Irish Halloween Traditions
Snap-Apple Night, painted by Daniel Maclise in 1833, shows people feasting and playing divination games on Halloween in Ireland.

Trick or treating – The act of going door to door for ‘candy’ is often associated with American fancy dress, but the pasttime originated centuries ago. In Ireland the poor would go from door to door at rich people’s homes and ask for food, kindling or money sometimes with the words ‘Help the Halloween Party’. They would then use what they collected for their celebrations on Halloween.

Apple bobbing / Snap apple – Another superstitious game, which originated mainly in Ireland and Scotland in the 18th century. In 1902 one book noted that after an apple was caught with the teeth from a bucket of water the participant would ‘throw it over your shoulder, and it falls to the ground in the shape of the initial letter of your true love’s name’.

Turnip carving – It was not always pumpkins that were carved. Irish people would carve turnips and light them with embers to ward off evil spirits, but as they emigrated to America the native pumpkin was actually found to be so much easier to carve out and shape.


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