When I was growing up in the west of Ireland in the fifties my grandfather gifted me with stories about Samhain, (pronounced, SOW-in) now known as All Hallows Eve or Halloween. Samhain, a Gaelic word, meaning “end of summer,” signaled the coming of winter and the beginning of the Celtic New Year.
“In the olden days, this was a mighty harvest feast,” Grandad said. We sat by the fire after eating our colcannon, and dunking for apples in the wooden tub that my mother filled with water and set in the middle of the kitchen floor. “It started on November’s Eve and went on for three days and nights,” he said. Loading his clay pipe with tobacco, he continued. “Farmers knew that after the last apples were picked, it was time for the earth to rest. They lit bonfires, then scattered the ashes on the land to ensure good crops for the coming spring.”
“Tell them the reason behind carving faces on turnips,” said my mother as she moved closer to the fire with her cup of tea.
“Jack-o-lanterns lit the way for our visiting dead,” Grandad continued.
“But we don’t believe in ghosts now,” I put in.
“Maybe we do and maybe we don’t.” Says Grandad. He cut a chunk of tobacco and kneaded it with his palms. “We always said that ghosts roamed the earth on Samhain when the veil between this world and the other was as thin as that smoke comin’ out of me pipe.” He twisted a piece of newspaper to make a taper and reached into the turf fire to get another light for his clay pipe. Then he leaned back in his chair, and we children watched the smoke make black ringlets that floated above his gray head.
Many of the old practices, such as parading to the beat of the bodhrán (goat skin drum), while carrying tree branches lit from the bonfire, had died out by then. But I was glad that the practice of carving jack-o-lanterns out of turnips was still in vogue. When the moon took the place of the sun in the sky, these eerie faces peered from cottage windows throughout the countryside. Any crops still in the field were considered taboo, and left as offerings to the nature spirits.
My mother forbade us to eat berries still hanging on bushes after November 1st.
“The Púca might have spat on them,” she warned. Although I wasn’t sure I believed her, I did wonder what this shape shifting spirit might look like if we crossed paths in the gooseberry garden or behind the rick of turf. I might be snatched away from my snug home with its thatched roof. If our donkey or gander, or any of the farm animals, acted in a disagreeable manner around this time of year, I suspected a púca had taken over the poor animal. And when next-door’s goat, in spite of barbed wire and a spancel on two of his hooves found his way into our Well Field, my mother remarked:
“May God protect us. There’s something unnatural about that lad.” Shaking her head she added, “But sure ‘tis that time of year again.”
It is that time of year again. Despite the collapsing economy here in America and all over the world, Halloween costumes are flying off the shelves. Whatever about the return of the dead, this holiday seems to be a spirit lifter for the living. As for me, I enjoy connecting it to the past.
Every October 31st, since I began teaching Irish language and dance back in the 1980s, I have organized a Samhain party. To teach the origin of this holiday, I invite students and friends to a celebratory dinner at a New York restaurant. We dress as characters in Celtic history or mythology and share the story of our chosen spirit. Teachers, nurses and accountants become ancient gods and goddesses. Robed in white or green, they regale each other with tales of their healing powers and magic. Lawyers, hairdressers and librarians might become patriots like Grace Plunkett. Others take on scribes bringing Synge, Lady Gregory and Yeats to our party. Folk Singers sing songs of the sea, and winged beings ask cats to join in a step of “The Fairy Reel.”
Dare I ask my students and friends to spend money this year on celebrating when everyone is cutting down on eating out? When I did, most were relieved and appreciative. I was assured that strong spirit characters would float in from the other world. Maeve, an ancient Irish queen, known for her bravery in demanding equality with her husband, promises to drive her cattle through fog, hail and rain to get to New York. Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen, will raise a sword for the common good. The mighty warrior, Fionn Mac Cumhail, who always knows what to do in the face of fear and danger, will share his philosophy about never promising at night what you can’t fulfill on the morrow.
When the spirits fade back to that space beyond the veil, we always finish off dinner with the traditional Barín Breac - fruit bread containing a ring, a coin and a hazel nut. According to tradition, the lucky guest who finds the ring will be sure to find love in the New Year. I hope the coin falls into my plate this year so I won’t have to fret about my trip to Ireland next month. Whoever is lucky enough to bite into the wisdom of the hazel nut, becomes so wise; he or she won’t need money at all.
After all the fantasizing, we finish off with, Rince Mór na Tine--The Bonfire Dance, and the song, Old Lang Syne. We form a circle of lights and speak the names of loved ones who have recently passed to the other world.
This year, when I blow out my candle and watch the ringlets of smoke floating out the window of the Playwright Restaurant on to 7th Avenue, I’ll listen to whisperings of hope from the past as we wish each other a Happy Celtic New Year.
Maura Mulligan’s writing has appeared recently in The Irish Echo. She is Writer in Residence at Boll Cottage, Achill, Ireland, where she is working on completing a memoir.