Friday, 30 September 2011

Can we thank the Irish for Samhain?

Most holidays commemorate or celebrate something. But what about Halloween? What is Halloween actually a celebration of? And how did this peculiar custom originate? Is it, as some claim, a kind of demon worship? Or is it just a harmless vestige of some ancient pagan ritual where folks get together for parties, dress up in Halloween costumes and bob for apples?

Halloween originates from the ancient Celts' celebrations and is based on their 'Feast of Samhain'. The Catholic church attempted to replace the Pagan festival with All Saints' or All Hallows' day, followed by All Souls' Day, on November 2nd.

The eve became known as: All Saints' Eve, All Hallows' Eve, or Hallowe'en. All Saints' Day is said to be the day when souls walked the Earth. In early Christian tradition souls were released from purgatory on All Hallow's Eve for 48 hours.

Literally translated, Samhain means "Summer's End". At this time, the hours of nighttime were growing significantly over the hours of sunlight. Hence, Lord Samhain reigned over the long winter months as the influence of the Sun god and the summer season (Beltaine or Beltane) preceded. Samhain's influence grows with the increase in the hours of darkness, as he can only roam the earth during hours of darkness.
The Druids believed that on their New Year's Eve, all of the people who died in the past year would rise up and search for the passageway to the netherworld. On this night the passageway or "veil" between both worlds was it's thinnest. Lord Samhain would roam the earth in search of these souls to capture them and take them to his world of darkness. To this day, some people put lights in their windows to help the dead find their way, and keep Lord Samhain away from taking them.

Samhain Traditions and Beliefs

Samhain is considered a time to eliminate weaknesses - our Celtic ancestors slaughtered weak animals that were not likely to survive the winter and their meat was salted and stored for the dark months, this has evolved into the custom of writing your own weaknesses onto a piece of paper then burning them.

It was customary at Samhain to leave an empty chair and a plate of food for any dead guests, so that they would not be offended.
 At the stroke of midnight - believed to be the hour the dead visited - all remained   silent  in respect.

When a candle flame flickers on Halloween night it is being touched by the spirits of dead ancestors.    

Those born on All Hallows Eve are believed to have the gift of second sight.

If you catch a falling leaf on Samhain before it touches the ground it will bring you good luck and health for the coming winter.

Halloween lanterns
The tradition of face-carved pumpkin lanterns is thought to be derived from the Celts' placing of ancestors' skulls outside their doors at this time. Others see it as originating from using lanterns to ward off any evil spirits, which may be wandering through the thin veil into the living world on this All Hallows Eve.

The lit pumpkins also symbolise that in the darkness of winter the light continues within the seeds, tubers and bulbs dormant under the earth - they are still full of life and glowing like the candles within the pumpkins.

The name Jack O'Lantern derives from an old Irish tale of a villain who after he died could not enter heaven or hell - a damned soul. So he was condemned to wander the land with only a candle to see his way (some say it was a hot ember from the devil), which he placed inside a gouged out vegetable to act as a lantern. Others believe Jack-O-Lantern was a mischievous spirit who carried a light at night and lures night travellers into bogs or marshes, which were the dwelling places of fairies.

The Jack O' Lantern used to be made from a turnip, but Irish emigrants to America adopted the plentiful pumpkin since it is much easier to carve. In the Isle of Man they still carve turnips to make lanterns and call the night 'Hop To Naa', not Hallowe’en, or Trick or Treating.

The custom of trick-or-treating is thought to have originated not with the Irish Celts, but with a ninth-century European custom called souling. On November 2, All Souls Day, early Christians would walk from village to village begging for "soul cakes," made out of square pieces of bread with currants. The more soul cakes the beggars would receive, the more prayers they would promise to say on behalf of the dead relatives of the donors. At the time, it was believed that the dead remained in limbo for a time after death, and that prayer, even by strangers, could expeditea soul's passage to heaven. 

   In Greek mythology, goddesses of the underworld were often used to invoke the Samhain. Popular Greek Goddess costumes portray Hecate and Medusa. Hecate was the most favored goddess by Zeus, and mptiness between the worlds of life and death looking for souls of the dead. Both were considered serpent goddesses, and their ancient dark legends spawned myths such as vampires, who fed off the living using venom and snake-like fangs. Ritualistic dress includes snake adornments and three headed masks. Today, Hecate is often referred to as the goddess of witches.

So, although some cults may have adopted Halloween as their favorite "holiday," the day itself did not grow out of evil practices. It grew out of the rituals of Celts celebrating a new year, and out of Medieval prayer rituals of Europeans. And today, even many churches have parties complete with Halloween costumes or pumpkin carving events for the kids. After all, the day itself is only as evil as one cares to make it.

Colcannon - A Halloween Recipe

Here's a wonderful little Irish recipe that I've grown up with.

Colcannon is an Irish dish that is rich in tradition and history. It was traditionally made and eaten on Halloween, as the eating of meat was not allowed. Some families would leave out a plate of colcannon, with a lump of melted butter in the centre, for the fairies and the ghosts.

It was also used as a way of telling someone’s fortune. The idea was to wrap a miniature thimble, a ring, a miniature horseshoe, a button and a silver sixpence in white paper, these items were then dropped into the prepared dish and stirred in through the mixture. The Colcannon was then served and whoever got a little parcel would  know their future, as each item had a meaning as follows; the ring-you will marry or if already married will continue to be happy, silver sixpence-wealth, horseshoe-good luck, thimble-you would be spinster and the button- a bachelor.  

Ths is my mother's recipe.....enjoy!

Serves 4-6
1 small, finely shredded, Savoy cabbage
6 potatoes
1 onion, finely chopped
1 leek, chopped
1/4 litre milk
1/4 lb melted butter
6 rashers of lean bacon (optional)
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste


Cook potatoes in a pot of boiling water until tender. Drain and reserve the water. Place the hot potatoes in a large bowl.

Add chopped cabbage to the reserved potato water. Cook 4-6 minutes or until tender. Meanwhile, fry the onion and leek in the butter. Remove from pan and add diced bacon, cook until crispy.

When they are cool enough to handle, mash potatoes with a hand masher or fork. Add the fried onions, leek, bacon and cabbage.

Add milk, salt and pepper and beat until fluffy.

To serve
Serve in soup bowls, making a little well in the middle for the melted butter

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