Samhain Celebrations and Games

by Brian Witt

November 1 is Samhain, the Celtic New Year. It is that time when the harvest is collected, the days are getting shorter and darker, and the cool of winter is knocking at the door. Samhain means Summer's End.

It was also the festival of the dead, when the boundary between the world of the living and that of the dead was the thinnest, and with the slaughter of animals and the death of crops, it allowed the dead to reach back through the veil of life and death. For those of us living in a world of continual light, it is hard to imagine what the darkness meant to the Gaels. With light that was provided only by the hearth and tallow lamps, and had to be preserved for the whole of winter, it was the beginning of a season of night noises, cold and preserved food.

Harvest

In the country year, Samhain marked the first day of winter, when the herders led the cattle and sheep down from summer's pastures to be closer to home. Hay that would feed them during the winter would be stored in the farm's outbuildings, secured against winter storms. The harvest had to be gathered, as the faeries and pucas would attack every growing plant with their breath, killing whatever standing crops might remain.

Members of the household worked together to create the stores of salted meat and preserves. Peat and wood for winter fires were stacked high near the hearth.

Samhain was when farmers would check their herds and grain supplies, and decide which animals would be slaughtered. It is a custom still observed by many who farm and raise livestock because it is when meat will keep until the freeze would come.

With the death of summer grasses, it was harder to keep cattle fed without them being able to forage.

Bonfires

Bonfires played a large part in the festivities. The bonfires were fueled using the dead stalks of crops, and other organic material. On occasion, the bones of cattle were tossed in, in homage to the pre-Christian sacrifice rituals. Villagers would extinguish all other fires in the village. The hearths of homes were lit using the bonfire flames, therefore creating a bond amongst the families. When two bonfires were built side by side, people would walk between the fires in a purification ritual.

Guisers

With death came a desire to avoid the dead. People would dress to avoid having their families come back and impose upon them, so they would dress up in costumes or masks to disguise themselves. In Scotland, and some parts of Northern Ireland, men and women would exchange clothing, in case dead relatives, or those who had a reason to hurt the living, could recognize them by their wardrobe. The resultant confusion of those who passed on would protect them.

Jack O'Lanterns - Turnips and Pumpkins

The carving of turnips into lanterns with faces was also done to protect those who were carrying them. These turnips were not the red variety, but rather a larger white turnip, more closely related to the rutabaga. It is also called the swede. (It wasn’t until the Irish and Scots came to America that they found the pumpkin was better for such purposes.)

With the costumes came the guisers, men, and then children, in disguise, who would go door to door looking for food or drink, or money. At the time of mass transatlantic Irish and Scottish immigration that popularized Halloween in North America, Halloween in Ireland and Scotland had a strong tradition of guising and pranks.

Games and Divination Practices

Games and divination practices are associated with Samhain. Among them were those dealing with marriage, weather, and the coming fortunes for the next year. One such method was to slice an apple in half, and then eat it by candlelight before a mirror. A future spouse would then appear over your shoulder.

Dunking for apples was a marriage divination. The first person to bite an apple would be the first to marry the next year. Peeling an apple was a sign of your life span, as the longer the unbroken apple peel, the longer your life was destined to be.

Dreaming stones would be collected with closed eyes from a stream, while saying, I will lift the stone, As Mary lifted it for her Son, For substance, virtue, and strength; May this stone be in my hand, Till I reach my journey's end, would be placed under a pillow, a dream would be asked for that would give guidance or a solution to a problem, and the stones would bring it.

Enjoy the start of the new Celtic year. Enjoy the bounty of the harvest, and have a happy Halloween.



More Samhain - Go to:

Page 1 - Samhain - The Celtic New Year and Halloween


Page 2 - The Dullahan - the Irish Headless Horseman
Page 4 - Halloween Recipes

Page 5 - Page 4 - More Samhain Recipes
Page 6 - A Reason to Keep Vigilant - It is Samhain

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