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Fairies, Flames, and Food: Curious Celtic Customs

For those of us with Celtic heritage (myself included), traditions are of paramount importance. Along with stubborn streaks, sentimentality, and tempers that go from slow burn to high octane in no time, the Celts are a band of people who like to be in control and to know what’s coming next. Which could also explain their association with fortune telling and divining the dark, so prevalent this time of year.

And no season illustrates the importance this holds in the Celtic culture more than Samhain and it’s family-friendly cousin, Halloween.

The history of Halloween is one that can be recited to some extent by many Americans: how it came to the shores of New England with the arrival of the Irish during the Great Famine, then morphed into an evening of fun and mischief, and later downright danger. Reports of drug laced candy made the night sinister and all the fun was drained like a maiden after meeting Dracula. Further, many public schools have since banned Halloween celebrations, opting for a “Festival of Fall” themed party for youngsters or going so far as to ignore it completely.

But society seems to be missing an ironic point. Halloween is meant to be a spooky (actually scary most times) break to dress up, gorge on schlock horror films and sugar, and to appreciate the creepier things in life. But Samhain was a whole other day altogether, and one that Celtic descendants in the motherland still revere.

Though the origin of the word is debatable, Samhain is celebrated at the end of harvest, historically on October 31 or November 1. It was a day to honor and recall all those who had gone to the other side during the previous year and a night in which those spirits could walk among the living.

A great bonfire was lit and everyone in the village could light a torch and take the flame back to their hearth. If the fire caught, they were sure to have fine luck in the coming year. If not, they would be faced with unfortunate events. Folks would then set out a “dumb supper” which consisted of a place setting and food for the visiting spirit, should they be so inclined to visit. Colcannon, a tasty mixture of potato, kale, and raw onion may have been offered, along with grog or mead.

And then there were the fairies. Nothing cute like Tinkerbell, these devilish and divisive creatures took the form of raging black stallions. Known as “Pooka”, these fairies would take anything left over from a farmer’s field after the day had dawned, leaving little for the family. Conversely, there were also helpful fairies, but even they were not so pretty.

Celts also used this time to lift the veil of the future. Many would place an ivy leaf in water overnight to see what their health would be like in the coming months. If the leaf was perfect and un-spotted, the next day, vigorous health could be expected. A couple would also throw hazelnuts into a roaring fire to see if their marriage would last another year. If they crackled and burned together, it was a good omen. A far messier task would be to read the entrails of a slaughtered animal.

My guess would be whoever lived through food poisoning would have a good year, in that respect.

These activities influenced a new generation when it came to the parlor games of the mid 1800s. Apples sliced in half could tell a fortunate, and the peel thrown over the shoulder would tell a girl who she would marry. Mirrors were used while a girl brushed her hair, hoping to see the ghostly reflection of her intended.

Trick or treating may have come from the begging door to door for food, and costumes from those who were trying to trick the departed.

Though two distinct events, Samhain and Halloween often get morphed into one day. Halloween, in fact, was absorbed by the Catholic Church, thereby making a Pagan celebration one that could be accepted by Christians.

And regardless of the shrieks, screams, and terror of sugar rushes, Samhain is overall a time to remember those who have gone before us and a reminder to prepare for the coming chill of winter.

Which is only scary if you don’t like the cold.

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