The first day of November is the first day of the New Year on the ancient Celtic calendar – its name: Samhain (pronounced sow-un). Samhain was the feast, which bonfires marked the coming of the New Year, and the completion of the harvest. Long before the time of Christ, it was the single most important feast day for Celts from Anatolia to the shores of the broad Atlantic (not just in the remaining Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Mann, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany, and Galicia in Spain, but among the Galatians – to whom Saint Paul would later write, Galicia in modern-day Poland, Transalpine Gaul – all three parts, Cisalpine Gaul – the Po Valley in northern Italy and its mountainous environs, including South Tyrol, much of the blue Danube valley, etc.).
According to Celtic usage, the old day ended, and the new day began in the darkness which followed dul faoi na gréinne – sunset/the going under of the sun (not unlike the Jewish/Coptic reckoning of the day’s end as once it is dark enough to see three stars in the sky – starry nights being more likely in the Holy Land than in the northern mists).
Analogous to the modern cartoon depiction of the old year as being this fellow with a long beard, reaping tool over his shoulder, wearing a long gown emblazoned with the numbers of the old year, and the new year as the baby, with top hat and the numbers of the new year on his diaper, the ancient Celts believed that each year had a spiritual persona. The problem seems to have been that, unlike today’s demarcation between the old year and the new, as the ball comes down at Times Square, and the numbers of the new year flash through waiting TV screens at the speed of electro-magnetic radiation, apparently there was no such requirement for contact relief between the old year and the new among the ancient Celts. What this means is that the old year went off duty sometime after darkness had fallen upon the last day of October (the ending of the month of the end of the harvest), whenever it suited him to do so, and, if the new year had yet to come on duty, then there was a period of time, which belonged neither to the old year, nor to the new. This is when the creatures of the nether world (e.g., ghosts, goblins, etc.) might, however inadvertently, wander into our world, and we, if abroad that night, might also slip into theirs. The prudent thing was to stay home that night, and to leave out offerings of food to placate any wandering otherworldly creatures with a treat, to persuade them from playing any mischievous tricks. A jack-o-lantern might also help to keep them at bay.
In the early days of Christianity, the – now Christian – Celts still held their Samhain feasts on the 1st of November (not unlike the Germans with their winter solstice festival, which included candles on evergreen trees). The Church solved the German problem by “baptizing” the trees to become “Christmas trees,” just as the problem of the three mythological goddesses named Bridget, who were celebrated on Imbolc (1st of February), were trumped by making that day the Feast of Saint Bridget of Kildare. However, there being no one saint with the clout to cover all of the Celtic nations, it was determined, in the seventh century, to move the Feast of All Saints (aka All Hallows) from the 7th of May to the 1st of November, with the result that sunset on the 31st of October became the eve of the Feast of All Hallows, which contracted to be known as “Halloween.”
In Irish (An Gaedhilge), the original name for this mystical time remains in use today, Oiche Shamhna (pron. ee-ha how-na), the Night of Samhain, in American English – Halloween.
Contributed by Liam Ó Murchadha. Artwork by the late Brian Mór Ó Baoighill.