Food and Decorations for a Very Celtic Halloween
It’s that time again, time to hang ghosts, put black cat silhouettes in the window, and scatter pumpkins all around the house. But do you ever wonder why? Why those decorations and why celebrate Halloween at all? Hopefully, this week’s post will make Halloween a little more meaningful, plus give you some ideas for food and decorations that draw inspiration from the Celtic roots of All Hallows’ Eve.
Not the Devil’s Holiday
Halloween has its origins in the Celtic fire festival of Samhain. Both Samhain and Halloween have acquired an association with witchcraft, black magic, and devil worship. This is a corruption of these celebrations. The word Halloween is a contraction of the phrase All Hallows’ Evening. Originally, it was the vigil of the Christian holy day of All Hallows, which is now called All Saints’ Day. The Catholic Church created the holy day in the 8th century in an attempt to move Celtic Christians away from celebrating the pagan festival of Samhain. One of the four major festivals of the Celtic calendar, Samhain is essentially a harvest celebration. Like the other three fire festivals—Imbolc, Beltane, and Lughnasa—it marks the beginning of a new season: winter. Samhain also represents the transition from the old year to the new. As it is a pause between the two, the ancient Celts considered it a highly magical time (click here for information on the importance of an in-between in Celtic spiritualty and folklore).
Among the themes of Samhain are death and darkness. It is the end of the year. The cold greyness of winter is coming. The landscape will appear dead until spring. But Celtic spirituality has a strong belief in life after death and in rebirth. Samhain is a celebration of the ancestors who live on in the Otherworld and who, on Samhain’s Eve, will return for a visit. According to Celtic folklore, at this time the veil between our world and the Otherworld grows so thin, souls can pass through to either side. But ghosts aren’t the only ones who can crossover. The folklore says all sorts of other supernatural beings roam free on All Hallows’ Eve. So beware!
The Celtic year is divided into two halves: the light and the dark. The light half, full of sun and warmth, begins at Beltane (May 1st). Samhain begins the dark half of the year. Perhaps this is where the association with black magic comes from but that is a misinterpretation. The dark half of the year simply is a time of decreasing sunlight and increasing coldness. It is the world moving into the cold, dark of winter.
Celtic Themed Decorations
The great thing about having a Celtic Halloween is that you don’t have to run out and buy a lot of new stuff. Likely you already have most, if not all of what you’ll need. It’s just a matter of decorating with intention through an understanding of the connection between specific symbols and their relation to Samhain.
Autumnal Items: While, on the Celtic calendar, autumn ends on Samhain’s Eve (Oct. 31st), Samhain is a harvest festival, so anything that brings the harvest to mind—apples, corn, straw, scarecrows, and so forth—is appropriate. What about pumpkins? The Celts didn’t have pumpkins but the American tradition of Jack-o-lanterns comes from a Celtic folktale, Stingy Jack. From this tale comes the Irish tradition of carving faces on turnips and placing a candle in them. Irish immigrants brought this custom with them to the U.S. and switched to carving pumpkins. So those glowing orange gourds make themselves at home in a Celtic Halloween.
Ghosts: The spirits of the ancestors return at Samhain, so ghosts should definitely be a part of the décor of a Celtic Halloween. But because the veil is porous at Samhain, not all ghosts are friendly family members. Some come back seeking revenge. So decorate with whatever kind of ghosts you want. Spooky, scary, Casper, it’s all good.
Skeletons: Well…they’re not directly associated with Samhain or All Hallows’ Eve but an argument can be made that, since Samhain has death as one of its themes, skeletons reasonably could make an appearance. Also, they can represent the Sluagh Sidhe. See “Bats” below.
Cats: Absolutely! Not as a witch’s familiar but as a Scottish faerie, the Cat Sidhe. This faerie looks just like a Halloween cat: black fur, back arched, tail up, hair standing on end. In folklore, this faerie sneaks into the room where someone had just died. By walking over the fresh corpse, it steals the person’s soul. Nasty little creature!
Witches: They do not play a part in either the Samhain or early All Hallows’ Eve celebrations. By the middle ages, though, as witchcraft hysteria spread through Christian Europe, concern about the sinister plans of witches began to show up in Celtic folklore. Feel free, then, to add them. If you really must. But witches are not a big part of an authentically Celtic Halloween.
Bats: On Samhain’s Eve, according to Irish folklore, the Sluagh Sidhe, a faerie collective, fly out of the Oweynagat (Cave of the Cats), in Co. Roscommon, Ireland. This cave is believed to be a portal to the Otherworld, and these scary faeries, like the Cat Sidhe, are soul-stealers. From a distance, as they fly across the sky, they resemble crows. Up close, though, (and you don’t want to get up close to them!), they have skeletal faces and bodies. Attached to the skeleton are long, leathery bat-like wings. While the Sluagh Sidhe tend to prey on the sick and dying, they have been said to confront lone travelers too. Once they find a victim, they suck out the poor unfortunate’s soul. Bats or crows could represent the Sluagh Sidhe, if you would like to include this terrifying Faerie horde in your décor.
Cauldrons: Cauldrons are important in Celtic folklore, but not in the witch’s brew way. They are a symbol of nourishment and plenty. So make them a part of your Celtic Halloween as vessels for delicious food and/or drink.
Less common decorations: Samhain is a time of powerful magic and divination was actively practiced during the fire festival. Crystal balls, tarot cards, and other fortune-telling tools would be add a touch of magic to your Celtic Halloween.
Consider adding some decorations that represent Samhain’s themes of death and dying. Banshees, for example, in Irish folklore are harbingers of impending death. Also, the Dullahan, a cross between the Headless Horseman and the Grim Reaper, rides through town on his Death Coach, a black carriage led by a team of black horses. Wherever he stops, someone dies. He and his coach would make an unusual, if creepy, addition to your Celtic décor.
On the lighter side, you could scattered some faeries about the house. While few Celtic faeries resemble the cute winged beings of American coloring books and animated films, the Good People are distinctly a part of Samhain. From sunset on October 31st until sunset the next day, faeries run amuck in the human world. So it seems only right to include them in a celebration of All Hallows’ Eve.
As you can see from the symbols and themes above, there are many ways you could go in regards to a Celtic Halloween menu. Here are just a few ideas. Click on the links to get the recipes.
--Ghost Hand Pies with Honey Dijon
--Chicken and Sweet Potato Jack-o-Lantern Pie
--Pumpkin Cannelloni with Sage Brown Butter Sauce
Enjoy decorating, eating, and having a very Celtic All Hallows’ Eve! Thanks for reading! I hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s post. Please LIKE and SHARE. To SUBSCRIBE for FREE, just click on the “Sign Up” button in the upper right of the page.
Slan go foil!
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