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!)