The Irish New Year

Happy New Year, everyone!

What? Two months away? Haha, you must be mistaken. New Year’s Eve is one week from today!

Old fashioned turnips hanging out with a newfangled pumpkin.

The Best Day of the Year

Today I’m sharing a little information on Samhain, the Gaelic new year and the biggest holiday on my calendar. Many of you celebrate Hallowe’en, which has some similarities, so let’s start there.

Hallowe’en is descended from a very old Celtic holiday. In Ireland and Scotland this holiday is called Samhain (pronounced SOW-en), which originally meant something like “Summer’s End.” In modern Irish Samhain is still the word for the month of November.

Samhain is the end of the harvest season, the final deadline for bringing in apples and other crops. Anything left in the fields after Samhain must be surrendered. It becomes the property of the Good People (elves). In more prosaic terms, anything still outside in November is probably rotting and/or frostbitten, and not good for mortals to eat.

Traditional festivities include carving turnips (pumpkins are a New World food), holding all-night bonfires, and divining the events of the coming year. In the Old Belief, Samhain is the Gaelic New Year. It’s also the first day of winter. Since the night of Samhain Eve straddles two seasons, it is “between the worlds” and magic and spirits are particularly strong at this time.

Traveling is traditionally a bad idea from sundown on the 31st until sunup on the 1st; it’s much safer to hold vigil at the bonfire with family and friends. However, not all spirits are considered dangerous. Samhain is a day when one is particularly likely to run into the spirits of deceased relatives, who might be there to give advice or just catch up on news from the world of the living.

Crossing Seas and Oceans

When the Gaels became Christians during the Dark Ages, the Church did not like the polytheist associations of the holiday but was unable to stamp it out. Eventually they made it All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2 or 3) to celebrate all the departed souls and the saints who look after them. Thus the theme of ghosts was kept up in a new, more monotheistic form. In England it was often referred to as “All Hallows Evening” from which we get the name Hallowe’en.

Hallowe’en is thus an English-Irish, Christian-Polytheist hybrid brought over to America by Irish immigrants. Not all of the old customs survived the voyage, but trick-or-treating managed to hang on. In Ireland this is not a Hallowe’en-specific custom; it was once common for children to go door-to-door and demand money or treats on a number of holidays, especially Imbolc (Candlemas) on Feb. 1. On that day they dress as the goddess Brighid or carry an effigy of her; at Hallowe’en they dress as various bogies and monsters. Tricks are definitely traditional as well—it’s unlucky to refuse the childrens’ demands and they gladly enforce this bad luck with pranks and insults.

You may not think of Gaelic and Hispanic cultures as closely related, but Hallowe’en and el Día de Los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) are close cousins. At one time there were Celtic people in Spain as well as Ireland (and much of Western Europe). Día de Los Muertos was the Church’s way of absorbing Samonos, the Celt-Iberian version of Samhain. Both holidays celebrate the departed dead with skull motifs and feasting. Samhain is still celebrated today in North America, Australia, Ireland and Scotland, mostly by Gaelic polytheists but also by some Catholics and Protestants.

This will be the first time in years that I don’t have a temple community to celebrate with. In the past our temple carved turnips for the departed, held toasting ceremonies, and made offerings to the deities. It’s a major celebration for me, but I wonder what it will be like on my own.

Do you celebrate Samhain? Have you ever even heard of it before? Leave a comment and let me know. I hope you find this interesting and may you have a wonderful New Year! And of course… please tweet or share this post.

(By the way, Rogue Priest now has its own Facebook page. If you stop by you can be part of the adventure preparation I’m doing there!)


21 thoughts on “The Irish New Year

  1. I love this time of year, so I do celebrate Samhain. What’s left behind in the garden I usually consider future compost, but now I’ll have to think of it as property of the Good People (elves):)

    • Grace that is great! The fun thing about the spirits taking the crops is that traditionally they take the “goodness” (nutritional value) out of the food. So when it decomposes they are done with it…. compost away :)

  2. I don’t celebrate Samhain, especially since my traditional festivals of ancestor veneration occur at different times of the year, but I do aesthetically enjoy halloween. Nonetheless I found this post to be very informative about Samhain and the traditions associated with it (and certainly it would be good luck to give treats to children since they can be a pit fey-like themselves and are generally adored by spirits and gods from what I understand.) Gods forbid that the mischeivous end of a child bite us ;) By the way I love the turnips!

  3. Drew,

    I’m happy to share a bit of our tradition on Day of the Dead this year. Hopefully, since you can’t take solace in your own temple, you can take it in ours.

  4. Yes, new year is near.
    Samhain is my highest feast day in the year, too. :)

    The life power is now going back into the Underworld and we focus on the aspects of letting go and listening to the soft voices within. While I am writing this, the crows visit my garden. Those beautiful black rascals, tricksters, messengers. Can you tell, I love this time of year? ;)

    So yes, we celebrate Samhain and Halloween, the latter being secular and just for fun, the former having deep meaning for me and my path.
    And your blog reminded me, that I wanted to write about it, too. So thanks and I love the carved turnips, btw! :)

  5. jenincanada says:

    This year I’m celebrating Samhain with a completely new group and leading the main part of the ritual. *gulp* Samhain for me is entirely about letting go of the ones who’ve gone before. There are always tears, either for myself or others, who’ve lost someone the year before.

  6. Thank you, Drew, for spreading the cheer! This is MY favorite time of the year, too. I look forward to hearing all about your adventures this new year. I’ll say a special prayer for you this year for a safe journey ahead and many more to come. Good days are coming soon, my friend!

  7. I love this season. Even when I was little, Halloween was my favorite holiday, I just didn’t fully understand why I was drawn to it so much. Sure, it was a bit about dressing up and getting candy but it felt deeper than that. When I got to college and began exploring Wicca, I found a new way to honor the season. Since that time, I no longer identify as Wiccan but I can’t let go of Samhain. Since I am devoted to Persephone I feel like it is an appropriate time to honor her even though it isn’t traditionally Hellenic. I rearranged my Persephone shrine to reflect this. I have a relief of Persephone and Hades, a pomegranate scented candle, a dried pomegranate, and a photograph of my Great Aunt and Grandmother at my Great Aunt’s wedding in 1921. I also have two small glasses – one in front of the gods and one in front of the ancestors. On Samhain night, I plan to share some of my latest homebrew with both the gods and ancestors – as well as enjoy some myself. It is a pomegranate wheat beer and I think they’ll both enjoy it.

    Drew – I am eager to hear how your Samhain celebration is this year. I have a feeling the experience will be powerful *because* of the change in your life over the last year.

  8. Jack says:

    Great post! Very informative. My wife is Catholic so we’re gearing up for All Saint’s and All Souls Days.

    Any holiday that remembers the ancestors is a great holiday in my book :)


    • Jack, based on what you just wrote on the Impossible League, I can see why. I have an even deeper admiration for your ancestors now and I hereby promise to make an offering of food on their behalf. And in the spirit of what they did, I will give it to a child after it is offered :)

      Happy holidays my friend!

      • Nora says:

        Hello Mr. Jacob,

        This is Jack’s wife Nora. I just wanted to let you know that your lovely gesture has made my husband’s day probably for the rest of the year at least! He’s often too macho to admit it but hearing about kids getting free food always makes him cry. Thank you again, so much!


        • Nora, I had been meaning to reply to this and now I have waited too long. I just want you to know that I was very moved by your comment and I did indeed make offerings of food & candy that were then given to kids. My condolences on Jack’s passing. He was, and always will be, a source of inspiration to me, and I made offerings on his behalf today as soon as I got the news.

  9. Matthew Johnston says:

    Remember sharing many Samhains with you at the Temple and the smell of the burning turnips! May the ancestors and the gods bless you, this sacred season, Drew!

  10. Pingback: Uncomfortable Questions and a Very Small House « Rogue Priest

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