Have a Samhain-Themed Celtic Halloween
The word Halloween doesn’t usually lead one to think of the Irish, Scots, and Welsh. But Halloween has its origin in the Celtic fire festival of Samhain. Unfortunately, both Samhain and Halloween have been maligned and distorted into being associated with things that are not what either holy day is about. Yes, I did say holy day.
Halloween is a contraction of All Hallows’ Evening, the vigil of the Christian All Saints’ (Hallows) Day. Samhain, while it had its festive aspects was, at its core, a time of prayer and sacrifice (cattle, grain, fruits, and veggies, not humans). A little more about that below, but this post is not a history lesson on the two celebrations. Instead, it’s about food and decorations that will help your Halloween reflect its Celtic roots.
How Samhain Became Halloween
What is Samhain (Oct. 31 / Nov.1)? It is one of the four Celtic fire festivals which herald the beginning of a new season. It marks the beginning of winter. Samhain also is the Celtic New Year. Sounds quite positive, doesn’t it? Perhaps sinister overtones have been attached to Samhain because the festival starts the dark half of the year. But this doesn’t mean Samhain is a celebration of evil or dark magic. It isn’t.
The Celtic year is divided into two halves, the dark and the light. This has to do with the amount of sunlight during those periods. In winter, days are short, and nights are long, thus, it is the darker part of the year. Beltane, the fire festival which marks the start of summer, begins the light half of the year. Why is it called "light"? During summer, generally, there is abundant sunshine. There are long days and fewer hours of night. There. Hopefully, that’s cleared that up. To learn more about this fascinating, spiritual feast of Samhain, check out my post “Samhain: Hope in the Midst of Darkness and Fear.” Now, back to the story of the transition from Samhain to Halloween.
When the Celts converted to Christianity, the Catholic Church attempted to stop their celebration of Samhain by moving the feast of All Hallows (All Saints) from May to November 1st. But this didn’t work. Since Celtic days began at sunset, the celebration of Samhain started in the evening of October 31st. So, the Celts adopted All Hallows but continued to celebrate Samhain. The Church tried again by making October 31st the vigil of All Saints. It became known as All Hallows’ Evening. Over time, this phrase contracted into Hallowe’en. The Celts retained many of the symbols and themes associated with Samhain, and some of these now are a staple of modern-day Halloween.
Samhain-Associated Symbols and Themes
As mentioned above, Samhain is the beginning of the dark half of the year. It is also the beginning of winter. The combination of cold and darkness hint at death. And this is reflected by the winter landscape. Most trees have lost their leaves and appear dead. The crops have been cut down. Nothing seems to be growing. Of course, there is the hope that life will return in the spring, and this is the great encouraging aspect of Samhain. But the winter environment isn’t the only reason Samhain is associated with death. The festival has as its main focus a celebration of the ancestors—and an expectation of their return.
Celtic belief teaches that the souls of the dead go to live in the Otherworld. Further, it says that this world and the other are separated only by a veil. At Samhain, that veil grows thin and those from the other side can cross over into this world. And they’re expected to. Faeries and other supernatural beings roam this world at Samhain. Also, the ancestors return home for a visit. Because of this, ghosts are a major symbol of Samhain. Skeletons, skulls, and graveyards are also appropriate decorations for a Celtic Halloween.
Crows, as carrion birds, can hint at death, too, but there’s another reason to include them as part of the decorations. The Sluagh Sidhe, a terrifying faerie collective, fly out of Hell Gate in Ireland on Samhain, to go in search of souls to steal. While in flight, they are said to look like a flock of crows. Click here to learn more about these faeries. Flying out of Hell Gate with the Sluagh Sidhe are bats, so be sure to scatter them around your house.
Black cats have long been a Halloween staple. Usually, this is because of their association with witches. While witches can be included in a Celtic-themed Halloween since supernatural beings are on the loose on Samhain, they are not strongly connected with the festival. Black cats, on the other hand, are. Here’s why. The cat-sith (or cat-sidhe), in Celtic folklore, is a faerie that takes on the appearance of a black cat. On Samhain, he goes from house to house. If a family leaves a bowl of milk or cream out for him, he blesses them. If anyone neglects to do so, he curses the family with dire misfortune.
So far, the decorations have been mostly black, white, and grey. That may be fine for some of you, but if you’d like a little color, there’s good news. Samhain is partly a celebration of the harvest. So, brighten up your decorations with autumn fruits, vegetables, and grains. Scarecrows are quite welcome too!
What about pumpkins? The ancient Celts didn’t have them. But cheer up Americans. You can sneak them in on a technicality. Jack-o-Lanterns have their origin in the Celtic folklore story of Stingy Jack. Click here for his story. In conjunction with this story, the Irish and Scots carved faces in turnips and illuminated them. When immigrants from Ireland and Scotland came to the U.S., they began using pumpkins in place of turnips. This eventually led to the main symbol of Halloween in the U.S.: the Jack-o-Lantern.
Since Samhain is a fire festival, candles are another appropriate decoration. Of course, exercise fire safety.
The Celts considered Samhain a time of powerful magic. Tapping into this, the Celts practiced divination both as part of the serious religious celebration and in games, such as attempts to discover the identity of one’s true love. Crystal balls, tarot cards, and other fortune-telling tools make sense as Celtic Halloween decorations.
Because beings from the Otherworld flow into this world on Samhain, many of the usual Halloween figures, such as witches, werewolves, vampires, and zombies, can be included in a Celtic-themed celebration. I also recommend something that may surprise people: faeries. But the Good People very much belong at this celebration. According to tradition, the faeries are out in force from sundown on October 31st until at least noon on November 1st and they are out to cause mischief.
Food, Glorious Food
As mentioned already, the harvest is a part of this celebration, so be sure to include autumn foods on your Halloween menu. Apples are particularly associated with autumn. Also consider including squashes (including pumpkin), root vegetables, stone fruits, grains, and corn. The best meat to use is beef since cattle were sacrificed at the communal celebration of Samhain (then everyone had a beef barbeque!).
Although it wouldn’t be Halloween without candy, cakes are an important component of Samhain. In preparing to welcome back the ancestors, Celtic families put a chair by the fireplace and laid out cakes on the table so the ghosts could rest and eat after their long journey back from the Otherworld. So, be sure to add cakes to your Celtic Halloween menu.
Speaking of menus, below are some ideas for appetizers, entrees, desserts, and drinks. Naturally, some of the beverages have alcohol because what would Halloween be without spirits? Just click on the name of the dish to get the recipe.
Muenster Sammies: Shaped like ghosts. Add a side of vampire blood soup and it becomes lunch.
Silly Apple Bites: Little green monsters that make great apps or snacks.
Mini Meatloaf Ghosts: With a side of blood sauce.
Spooky Eyeball Tacos: There’s nothing like having your food looking up at you.
Bloody Red Wine Pasta with Mozzarella Bats: The name says it all.
Halloween Jack-o-Lantern Pasta Dinner: Featuring spaghetti coming out of the eyes and mouth like worms!
Black Chocolate Cake: To celebrate the dark half of the year.
Pull Apart Graveyard Cupcakes: Looks like a graveyard complete with ghosts and tombstones.
Halloween Cat Cake: This skeletal black cat is an edible decoration.
Caramel Apple Snickers Cake: How can you resist a dessert with that name?
Dark and Spooky Cocktail: a twist on the classic Dark and Stormy.
Boo Beverage: Non-alcoholic and topped with ghosts. Just add rum or another spirit, if you prefer.
Cider Fall Fireball: With warm autumn spices to keep the chill off you.
Haunted Graveyard Cocktail: Add a smoking rosemary sprig for a spooky effect.
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Slan go foil!