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Irish Halloween Traditions

The Frighteningly True Story of How the Irish Invented Halloween

For a relatively tiny tribe of people, globally speaking, we Irish have wielded tremendous influence on how the rest of the world does things. Irish people have spread their joyous, highly addictive culture and customs to the far corners of the earth, and the fascinating true story of How the Irish Saved Civilization has been well-documented by scholars of Medieval European history.

Just when you figure the Irish couldn't possibly have done even one more thing to further brighten our humdrum, dreary lives, along comes the also-true story of how the Irish invented Halloween. It turns out the coolest holiday in the whole calendar is purebred Irish.

The Irish have always been preoccupied with spirits, ghosts, and assorted wee folk, while at the same time honoring the beliefs and dictates of Catholicism. Halloween joins these two seemingly conflicting belief systems together, and throws in a harvest festival for good measure. The ancient Celtic holiday of Samhain (or Summer's End) marked the end of the harvest season; it's the time of year to put up seed corn for the spring to come, cull any animals from the herd that are thought too weak to survive the winter, and hold a communal feast.

In the seventh century AD or thenabouts, the Catholics started their religious reign over Ireland, and imposed a new autumnal holiday, known as All Saints Day or All Hallows. To the Vatican, All Saints Day (November 1) was a day of remembrance for any saints not prominent enough to merit their own day. To the Irish, however, All Hallows Eve (October 31) represented the day of the year on which the Veil that separates the world of the living from the world of the dead was at its thinnest. Spirits walked the earth freely on that night, making mischief and having disturbing encounters with the living. An important part of Samhain was dressing up in macabre costumes to scare off any spirits that might be floating around browsing for a live body to possess. In addition, Samhain was a time for building huge bonfires and gathering around the flames to retell legendary tales of ancestors long dead.

THE ORIGINS OF PUMPKIN CARVINGJack O'Lanterns - Halloween Pumpkins

Here's a bit of Irish folklore for you. It seems there was once a naughty man named Jack, apparently quite the trickster, and a mite too evil to be admitted through the exalted gates of Heaven. While living, Jack had tricked the devil, so neither was he welcome in Hell. Thus Jack was forced to roam the earth for all time, with only a glowing ember to light his way; "Jack's lantern" consisted of this precious single ember, which Jack protected from the wind and damp by housing it inside a hollowed-out turnip.

When the Irish first arrived on American shores in droves during the 1840s, turnips were in short supply, while pumpkins were cheap and abundant. Ever resourceful, the Irish gladly made the switch, and the so-called "Jack O'Lantern" was born.

Come the end of October, when you're merrily carving your pumpkin and binging on candy, don't forget to give credit where credit is due. All hail the Irish!