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Friday, 31 October 2014

Oíche Shamhna

It’s Halloween tonight, when people dress up in costumes, go trick-or-treating and watch scary movies. Of course, all these customs are a fairly recent importation from the US. Traditionally, in Ireland, 31 October was Oíche Shamhna, the continuation of a pagan festival.

Oíche Shamhna marked the end of the Celtic Year, when harvests were over after the summer and people prepared for the winter. All fires were extinguished to mark the end of the year, with the new fire being lit on hill-tops and spread to the locality. Tlachtga, near the Hill of Tara, was an integral part of Oíche Shamhna celebrations, with the first fire of the winter season being lit there before the Samhain festivities began at Tara.

Oíche Shamhna, 1952
It was also the night that the doors were open between the worlds; between the supernatural world and our own. The dead could walk the earth again, fairies could roam freely and a spirit called the pooka, a type of horse demon, caused havoc wherever it went. Many people chose to stay indoors that night rather than risk running into that creature.

Snap Apple, 1952
As it was the end of the harvest, all fruit and berries had to be gathered by the end of October. The abundance of fruit at this time of year meant there was some spare for children to play games with, hence the development of Snap Apple and bobbing for fruit. The bairm brack was also baked full of the leftover berries from the summer, but trinkets such as the ring and the coin were included as predictions for the future.

Oíche Shamhna turned into Hallowed Eve when Christianity took over Ireland, which then turned into Halloween.  The eeriness of the Samhain traditions still appealed to people, and led to the development of the ghost stories, the horror movies, and the costumes. The night is an integral part of Celtic culture, and of humanity’s need to mark the changing of the seasons. Whether you throw yourself into the celebrations or lock yourself into your home for the night, there is no escaping Halloween.

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