Samhuinn is Scotch gaelic for the month of November, the traditional end of Celtic summer. This time marked the boundary between light and dark, life and death, good and evil. It was believed that the veil between this world and the next was thinnest at this time of year.
Fires were lit to guide spirits of the dead through the transition and chase away the bad spirits. This pagan holiday was so intertwined with Celtic traditions that the Roman Catholics couldn’t crush it, so they adapted it and adopted it as “All Soul’s Day” or “All Saint’s (Hallows) Day and the night before, “All Hallow’s Eve” we now know as Halloween.
Carved turnips way more frightening
Christian fires burned on hilltops where pagan fires had burned for 1000 years. The Irish made lanterns out of turnips (see photo above) to guide ‘Stingy Jack’ and other wandering souls caught in the netherworld while warding away the evil spirits with frightening masks and Jack O’ lanterns made from carved turnips.
But when Scottish and Irish people emigrated to America, they found that turnips weren’t as plentiful in the new world as pumpkins — a traditional native American harvest food.
Add Aztec chocolate, cheap plastic decorations, costumes and customs from around the world and you have modern Halloween.
This strangely modified holiday has only recently been re-imported to the Celtic regions where it was born. Now it is enjoyed around the world as far away as Japan and China by those who don’t read too much into a melting-pot tradition which celebrates nothing more than a chance to pretend to be someone else for an evening.
Photo of Jack O’Lanterns carved from turnips from the National Museum of Ireland, Museum of Country Life, Castlebar, Co Mayo