A CELTIC HALLOWEEN CELEBRATION: Decorations
The room is dark. Participants are seated in a circle. Fire sparks in the center of the circle, grows, its flames leaping to life. Reaching a hand towards the fire, the participants each take a flame from the fire. As the darkness is illumined, a ghostly shape appears, seated amongst the guests. Then the fireplace is lit. A second ghost is revealed, warming itself by the hearth. Welcome to a Celtic Halloween! Of course there are other ways to celebrate (especially if you’re not comfortable with all that fire). The great thing is that, since Halloween is so Celtic in its roots, you likely already have many of the decorations needed for an All Hallows Eve party that honors its Celtic origins. This post will discuss some of the reasons for and the symbolism behind those decorations and suggest a few others.
Halloween, as many people know, stems from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-ehn, the sow rhyming with cow). This post will not go into great detail about that important celebration since there will be a post devoted solely to it at the end of October. It will refer to it, however, as well as to Celtic culture, folklore, and mythology to provide a basis for the recommendations in this article.
So what does darkness have to do with Samhain? Despite a popular belief, Samhain was not a celebration of witchcraft and dark power. In fact, part of the ritual was intended to protect individuals and the community from sinister forces. Darkness is connected with Samhain because of a Celtic worldview. They believed the year was divided into a light half and a dark half. Samhain was the threshold between the two and started the dark part of the year. Also, days, in Celtic time-keeping, started at sunset. Days and years (Samhain started the new year) started in the darkness and moved towards the light.
Why fire? Samhain was one of four Celtic fire festivals observed annually: Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasa, and Samhain. Most scholars think Samhain was the most important of the four. During the three night / three day celebration, all hearth fires were extinguished. A sacred bon fire was lit. Using torches, the community members took part of the fire back home to relight their hearths. This fire not only would warm them through the coming winter, but they felt it provided safety from the forces of darkness.
So what have ghosts got to do with it? Celtic society, before as well as after Christianity impacted it, strongly believed in an afterlife. Their spirituality envisioned an Otherworld existing side by side with the mortal world. Faeries and other supernatural beings inhabited the Otherworld. So too did the souls of those who had died. Samhain, like the Mexican feast day, Dia de la Muertos, was a time to honor the dead. But while skeletons are a key symbol in the Day of the Dead, for Celts, it was ghosts—and they weren’t just symbolic. They showed up for the party!
Celtic spirituality taught that a veil existed between the two worlds, but at Samhain, that veil became thin. It thinned to such an extent that inhabitants of each world could see one another and even cross over into the opposite world. The souls of those who had died during the past year were expected to return to the human world to complete any unfinished business. That was great if your sweetheart had died before being able to give you a goodbye kiss. It was not so great if your neighbor, just before he died, had decided, for some reason, you had cursed his cow. You might want wear a mask or some kind of disguise so he can’t recognize you when he comes for his revenge. Costumes were definitely a part of Samhain. Celts wore them to the festival, wore masks in order not to be recognized, and dressed up like faeries and other supernatural beings in the hopes that they would blend in with the beasties and escape any malignant magical intentions. So costumes definitely fit in with a Celtic Halloween.
Even though the Celts went out to the nighttime Samhain festivities, they did so as a community (and in disguise). To wander about on your own at night during Samhain was considered unsafe. Crossroads and boundaries (such as the property line between your neighbor’s farm and yours) were thought to be the most likely places to encounter a ghost. Well, there and cemeteries. Wisdom dictated that cemeteries routinely be avoided, but this was especially true on Samhain. Only a very brave Celt (or a very foolish one) would enter a cemetery on Samhain’s Eve. Some still went. So ghosts, graveyards, tombstones, and even skeletons are all on-point as Celtic Halloween décor.
Despite taking measures to avoid encountering the ghosts running amok outside, Celts actually invited ghosts into their homes for Samhain. Not just any ghosts, though. They welcomed the spirits of their ancestors and set a place for them at the table. They kept the fire in the hearth going all night so the ancestors could warm themselves and left food, usually cakes, out as a treat for them (kinda like you do for Santa).
Arched-backed black cats are another common Halloween decoration that would be perfectly acceptable as part of a Celtic Halloween. The reason for this may not be what you think though. Nowadays, black cats tend to be associated with witches and while that idea is not entirely alien to Celtic thought, there is a another reason to link black cats with Celtic culture and Samhain. One of the Otherworld beasties roaming free on Samhain was the Cu Sith. A Cu Sith is a large black cat from Scottish folklore. It is said to be as large as a dog (although the breed isn’t specified). It usually appears with its back arched and its hairs standing on end like a typical Halloween cat. However, the Cu Sith most often isn’t a witch; it’s a faerie. There is a variant of the folklore, though, which says it might be a witch who has transformed herself into cat form. She only can do this nine times. If she goes for a tenth, she will not be able to change back to human form. Regardless of whether the Cu Sith is a witch or a faerie, it is a malevolent creature to be avoided.
Dog lovers rejoice! You can bring dogs to this party too. Scottish folklore also tells of the Cu-Sidhe, a dog the size of a young bull. It has green, shaggy hair and paws the size of man’s hands. On second thought, you might not want to invite it as it is considered a messenger of death and is said to carry off souls. It hunts silently but suddenly will let out three barks. It bays like a hound, an unearthly call which can be heard for miles. Folklore teaches that anyone who hears the Cu-Sidhe needs to run for safety immediately. If that person has not reached safety by the third bark, the person will die. Irish and Welsh folklore have similarly scary dogs, the Madra Dhu and Gwyn Anwynn respectively. They are black with glowing eyes and, like the Cu Sith, are messengers of death. Harry Potter fans will recognize in them the inspiration for the Grim.
Fans of the J. K. Rowling novels will find the Sluagh Sidhe familiar as well. They are cloaked beings that steal the souls of the dying and of those who are in emotional torment. The Dementors in the Harry Potter series are certainly cousins to the Sluagh. It’s going to be difficult, though, to find Sluagh Sidhe decorations at your local Halloween store. Never fear! Their presence at your party can be represented either by bats or crows. The Sluagh’s wings are described as leathery and similar to bat wings. Also, each year at midnight on Samhain, the Hell Gate in Ireland flings open and out fly the Sluagh accompanied by bats. These faeries (for that’s what they are considered to be in both Irish and Scottish folklore) resemble a flock of crows when they are flying.
Crows also fit into the Celtic theme in two other ways. They are carrion birds, often seen circling the dead, and death is one focus of Samhain. The second way crows fit into a Celtic Halloween is their connection to the triple goddess, the Morrigan. The goddess of death and life, of war, and of destiny, the Morrigan is a shapeshifter who most frequently appears as a crow. So those big, black birds have a place at the party!
If you would prefer a less spooky celebration, go agricultural and autumnal. While Lughnasa is the Celtic fire festival which celebrates the harvest, Samhain takes place right at the end of the harvest and shares associations with it. People brought harvest offerings to the communal celebration. So deck the halls with Fall fruits and vegetables, squashes and berries in particular. Apples also are associated with Samhain. Grains and haystacks are appropriate here too. And bring out that old Protector of the Crops, the scarecrow, as well.
Dare I mention the “p” word? Pumpkins are not, in themselves, Celtic. Jack-o-lanterns, on the other hand, are. As I recounted in last week’s post, jack-o-lanterns arose from the Celtic myth of Stingy Jack who got himself banned from both heaven and hell. Doomed to walk in the twilight world of the earth-bound undead, he lights his way with a lantern lit from a flame from hell. The story is that Jack put the flame in a turnip so that is what the Celts used—until they arrived in the New World. The Scottish and Irish immigrants to America began using pumpkins and thus created what is now one of the most common symbols of Halloween. So go for it. Carve and light up that orange squash!
For a distinctly Celtic touch to your All Hallows Eve celebration, add these: fortune-telling cards, a crystal ball, and a triskelion. Celts felt divination was more powerful at Samhain than at any other time. The Druids made predictions about the coming year as part of the Samhain ritual and fortune-telling activities were part of the fun and games of the celebration for everyday members of the community. So get out those tarot cards, crystal balls, even tea leaves (more on this in next week’s post about activities). The moon played an important role in Samhain as it was used to determine the dates of Celtic feast days. It also provided the feminine balance to the fire (which represented the male sun god, Lugh). Finally, the triskelion provides a distinctly Celtic touch to your Halloween celebration. Death was an integral theme in Samhain but so was life. The triskelion (pictured below) represented, among other things, the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Just like the seasons, this is a pattern that repeats over and over in a never-ending way, so Samhain was not the end. It was another beginning.
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Next week: Food and Activities for a Celtic Halloween
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