It’s November 1st and my friends back home have commenced the usual Nov. 1 activity: posting Halloween pictures from the night before on Facebook. I’m seeing the traditional slutty nuns, 80s cartoon characters, and props-as-concepts. My friends ask me: “What did you do for Halloween? Do they even celebrate it in Ireland or is it just an American thing?” Little do they know that some of Halloween’s roots are, in fact, in Ireland – planted long before the holiday became co-opted by Christianity and Hollywood.
In the world of the Celts, the festival of Samhain – “summer’s end” – was held from October 31 to November 1st; signifying the end of the lighter half of the year and the beginning of the darker half. The veil between the spirit world and the mortal world was believed to become thin, allowing spirits to mingle among the living. Scholars believe that the practice of wearing ghoulish masks and costumes developed as a means of protection to confuse evil spirits. Bonfires were lit as part of cleansing rituals and large turnips were hollowed out, carved with faces and placed on windowsills to commemorate the souls in purgatory. Over time, when the Catholic and Pagan traditions mingled in Europe, Samhain became associated with All Saints Day, celebrated on Nov. 1st. The term Halloween, once All Hallows’ E’en, comes from Old English.
Here in Dublin in 2009, there are no bonfires on Halloween. There are, however, fireworks. They popped all afternoon and early evening long, their sparkles fanning out like peacock tails over the Canal as a parade of costumed Dubliners trekked to and from “fancy dress” Halloween pub parties. Sean and I headed down to one of the quieter bars in our neighborhood to attend one ourselves: I was Holly Golightly, he was Albert Einstein. Typical elements of Hollywood Halloween were strewn across the bar – pumpkin jack-o-lanterns, spiderwebs, and gravestones. A skeleton poured Guinness while the DJ spun Lady Gaga. Costumes observed: a walking bottle of Jagermeister, slutty Little Red Riding Hood, slutty Snow White, slutty Dorothy, a scarecrow, two Teletubbies, a biohazard official, a Roman orator, the Pope, Cleopatra, a Werewolf, a slutty Werewolf, Medusa, a policeman.
Cultural reference alert: when a trio of men wearing nubby Aran sweaters and paddy caps trooped past, Sean snorted in distaste.
“Dubs,” he sneered. “They would think farmer clothes are a Halloween costume. My mum wears Aran sweaters. Eejits.”
When asked about the Halloweens of his childhood, Sean remembers bobbing for apples, eating apples hung from the ceiling on a string, and enjoying barmbracks – Irish Halloween cakes. Barmbracks are light fruit cakes with special treats baked inside. If you find a ring, you’re going to find love. If you find the coin, you’re going to be rich. If you find the peanut, you’re going to be poor. Sean says he collected all of the lucky charms in his childhood. It would be hard not to, he says. You eat the cake so many times.