An Irish Samhain
An Irish Samhain
Celebrating Halloween the Traditional Way
By Bernd Biege, About.com Guide
With Halloween parades and carnivals entertaining the masses and Irish children going trick-or-treating with plastic pumpkins you might be excused for thinking that samhain is dead. But stop … is this not the night the dead can return? And indeed they do, several customs observed on All Hallows’ Eve still have a certain pagan ring to them. Though it has to be said that the fabric of tradition is rapidly wearing thin …
Blessing the House
One of the traditions at this time of rest and renewal was the construction of a humble parshell (or parshal), a cross manufactured of two thin wooden staves, about six to nine inches long. Straw was woven tightly in a square pattern around the crossed staves, leaving an inch or so uncovered at the ends.
The finished parshell was than hung above the door inside the house, replacing last years’. The latter was already taken down and placed somewhere else in the house or the barn.
Children were additionally blessed by sprinkling them with holy water or placing some burnt wood into their beds …
Bonfires – Fires of Bones
An outdoor activity was the lighting of a bonfire … literally a “fire of bones”, the unused remains of slaughtered animals were hygienically disposed of.
In days of old a rather alarming spectacle followed – once only the embers were glowing, mainly males snatched smoldering pieces and started throwing them at each other. Trying to avoid being hit at the same time. The origins of this “sport” or “ritual” are totally obscure, though it has been branded pagan.
Today’s bonfires rarely contain bones and embers are not snatched from them – but added tyres and (illegal) fireworks make them unforgettable if only for the stench and noise. Halloween is one of the busiest times for Ireland’s firefighters and councils try to eliminate illegal (and often dangerous) bonfires by simply bulldozing the site in the afternoon.
Traditional festivities also included groups of young men in costume, making an enormous amount of noise and going from door to door asking for contributions to their revels. “Threatening” the occupants with often nonsensical rhymes they asked for food and drink – which was happily provided. The young men were commonly called “guisers”, “vizards” (sic), hugadais or buachaillí tuí.
In Kilkenny and other areas a láir bhán (“white mare”, a man in a horse costume) led the procession. The carrying of lanterns seems to have been almost universal in contrast – every young man had a carved turnip with a candle, to illuminate the way and to scare onlookers. This might have been the origin of the “Jack O’Lantern”.
If you want to make your own, simply get a turnip and treat it as you would a pumpkin. After a few minutes you will, however, notice a certain difference – unless you resort to power tools, carving a lantern from a turnip will take a lot of effort and strength.
Other Wanderers in the Night
According to folklore you may encounter other beings out and about as well. Ghosts, ancestors, the pooka … all held at bay by light. And should the light prove insufficient people made sure to confuse any malevolent “others” by dressing strangely. Bonfires, ghosts, lanterns, undead, costume, mischievous spirits – all the ingredients of a modern Halloween are there.
Mind you – this time was also a favorite for dares. Like placing some money in a bible or hymnal, then leave same on the cemetery and tell everybody that whoever brings the book back during the night may keep the money. Though some played a dirty hand, donning funerary clothing and watching over the money themselves …