Halloween it’s NOT American!

Halloween, it's NOT American

Many people, it seems, think that Halloween is an American celebration. Over here in Slovenia, where I am currently living, when I ask people if they are doing anything for Halloween, they often reply that it’s a silly American thing.

So, let me set the record straight.

Halloween is actually Irish. Well, to be exact, it’s an ancient Celtic festival known thousands of years ago as Samhain (pronounced sowin). Halloween is in fact the Celtic New Year’s Eve. It signified the end of the harvest season, when all the crops were gathered and stored up for the long winter ahead.

More importantly though, it was a time when the Celts believed the physical and spiritual worlds came together, and the doors between them were flung open. The fairies, leprechauns, goblins, banshees and all manner of spirits flocked into the world above for one night. When the early Christian missionaries came to convert the pagans to Christianity, they replaced it with the Christian festival of All Hallows Eve. This eventually became known as Halloween.

Why do people think it's American?

Well, it is estimated that as many as 4.5 million Irish arrived in America between 1820 and 1930. They brought with them many of their traditions, and as many longed for their homeland, clung on to these traditions and celebrated them with great fervour. And we all know how in America everything becomes vastly over-exaggerated, so the celebrations became even bigger and hugely commercialised. Today, Americans celebrate Halloween with the same fervour as those original Irish immigrants, perhaps even more so.

And it’s not restricted to the USA, the Irish took this and many of their customs all around the world.

Halloween has always been celebrated across Ireland and the United Kingdom. When I was a child we all went out on Halloween night playing Trick or Treat, where we would knock on people’s doors and when opened shout “trick or treat” The occupant would have to give us a treat of sweets or cakes or money to avoid the trick. But this is not a modern day game. Here is how it all began:

The Otherworld

Fairy Tree at the Hill of Tara in County Meath, Ireland.
Fairy Tree at the Hill of Tara

In ancient Celtic history, the story goes like this: When the Celts first arrived in Ireland many thousands of years ago, the country was under the rule of a powerful and magical race known as the Tuatha de danann. A fierce battle ensued and ultimately the Celts were victorious.

In defeat, the De Danann were believed to have used their magic to retreat into the world below, the Otherworld, as it became known. Here they would dwell forevermore to be known as the Sidhe (Shee) or Fairy Folk. Like all civilizations, there were good and bad. Across Ireland, and many other parts of the world, there were portals, or doorways into this Otherworld. Many common portals are the Fairy Tree (a lone hawthorn tree), ancient dolmens or burial mounds, Turloughs (seasonal lakes in the Burren) and many more.

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Trick or Treat

Now the Celts were a superstitious bunch, and they believed that if you had done anything to anger the fairies during the year, such as cut down as fairy tree, or plough over a fairy ring, or anything disrespectful, the fairies would exact their revenge on this night by coming to the person’s house and playing a trick on them. In order to prevent this, the occupant needed to leave out a treat to appease the fairies and avoid their nasty trick.

Dressing up

Some believed that by putting on a costume or wearing scary masks they would avoid detection. Huge bonfires would be built and lit by the Druids to help ward off the evil spirits, such as goblins and witches.

Pumpkins

Another tradition was to carve out a scary face using a turnip, and light a small fire inside using coals to help scare off the evil spirits. Apparently Irish immigrants in America discovered that pumpkins were a good substitute, and more readily available, and that’s how the pumpkin came to replace the turnip.

Celebration of fire at the summer solstice at the Hill of Tara, Ireland.
Celebration of fire at the summer solstice at the Hill of Tara, Ireland.

Aileen, the Great Green Goblin of Tara

One particularly famous Halloween story is about an evil, powerful Goblin who every year wreaked havoc on the High King and his Samhain celebrations at the Hill of Tara. Lying in County Meath, the Hill of Tara is the ancient capital of Ireland. In a time when the country was ruled by kings, the High King’s seat was here. For many years though, Halloween became a time of terror. For each year Aileen would come and play sweet, magical music from his harp and lull the King and his band of protectors, the Fianna, into a deep and paralyzing sleep. Once under his spell, the evil goblin would belch fire balls from his mouth and burn down the palace and decimate the entire palatial complex, forcing them to re-build it time and time again. Despite their best efforts, no one was able to stop him or resist his magic, until the arrival of a great warrior named Finn McCool. Finn possessed a powerful weapon known as the Spear of Len, and also possessed the wisdom from the Salmon of Knowledge. Using the magic spear, he was able to keep himself immune to Aileen’s magic. Once the rest had fallen asleep, Finn threw the spear of Len and killed the evil Goblin once and for all. The King was so grateful, he made Finn leader of the Fianna.

Halloween celebrations in Slovenia

Decorated pumpkin at a local pumpkin show in Preserje, Slovenia. Just before halloween this local village near Ljubljana carves out pumpkins in all shapes and sizes and puts them on display in the street.

Decorated pumpkin at a local pumpkin show in Preserje, Slovenia. Just before halloween this local village near Ljubljana carves out pumpkins in all shapes and sizes and puts them on display in the street.
Decorated pumpkin at a local pumpkin show in Preserje, Slovenia. Just before halloween this local village near Ljubljana carves out pumpkins in all shapes and sizes and puts them on display in the street.
Decorated pumpkin at a local pumpkin show in Preserje, Slovenia. Just before halloween this local village near Ljubljana carves out pumpkins in all shapes and sizes and puts them on display in the street.
Cowboy and horse made from pumpkin at a local pumpkin show in Preserje, Slovenia. Just before halloween this local village near Ljubljana carves out pumpkins in all shapes and sizes and puts them on display in the street.
Cowboy and horse made from pumpkin at a local pumpkin show in Preserje,
Decorated pumpkin at a local pumpkin show in Preserje, Slovenia. Just before halloween this local village near Ljubljana carves out pumpkins in all shapes and sizes and puts them on display in the street.
Decorated pumpkin at a local pumpkin show in Preserje, Slovenia. Just before halloween this local village near Ljubljana carves out pumpkins in all shapes and sizes and puts them on display in the street.

Read more about Ireland’s ancient myths and legends, and how you can visit many of these places today in my book, Mysterious World: Ireland

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