Oct 31, 2013

Halloween, Samhain, and other Ramblings

So, the end of October is upon us again. As usual I've been seeing blog posts, tweets, and Facebook updates using Samhain and Halloween as interchangeable. Usually I go with the flow and celebrate Samhain at Halloween, but this year I thought I’d explain a bit more about the dates, why the two are not one in the same, and some other fun musings.

*When talking about ancient Ireland, history was passed word of mouth some things are open to interpretation per many scholars. This is based on my own thoughts on the subject*

First things first. Samhain is an ancient Pagan festival for the coming winter and the beginning of the new year(although this is debatable and a relatively new idea from 19th century) that came to incorporate celebrations of the dead at some point. Halloween or All Hallows Eve is the night before All Hallows(saints), a Christian celebration for Saints, Martyrs and in some countries other lost loved ones. 

Roots and the date. The biggie. Samhain and Halloween(All Hallows Eve) can occur on very different dates. Yes, I know this goes against a lot of what the internet says and if it says it on the internet, it must be true. Let me explain. Per the modern Gregorian calendar All Hollows Eve is celebrated 31st October dating back to 9th century when All Saints Day moved from May to 1st November. Possibly because The then Pope wasn’t too happy about the persistent pagan customs among the Celtic people around Samhain. It wasn’t until the 13th century that the Christian celebration overshadowed Samhain.

Samhain is much, much older than All Hallows Eve. Samhain is Gaelic for November and November (per the Celtic calendar and still here in Ireland) is the first month of winter. So, per the modern calendar Halloween(31 oct) is the Eve of Samhain. Because celebrations tended to begin at sundown ie the end of the day, Samhain celebrations started on the Eve of Samhain.


See what I did there? Since it’s the night that’s in it, there’s no better time to settle in with Quinn from Eve of Samhain.

On we go…

So that’s by the modern calendar, before the modern Gregorian, there was the Julian calendar, before that the Coligny(solarlunar) calendar. The oldest Coligny dates back to 200AD. The roots of Samhain go back much further. The ancestors of the Celts in the place now called Ireland were a clever bunch.

2013-03-06 12.54.40

The Sundial Stone at Knowth, Meath 4000BC

The name sort of speaks for itself. This stone used for measuring the cycles of the sun is older than the previously thought oldest sundials found in Eygpt by 3,000 years. Studies have measured and been recreated to show the purpose of these carvings. We know these Neolithic people tracked the sun and moon and there is evidence they held rituals and celebrations of the solar and lunar cycles. For example the sun entering the passageway at Newgrange during the winter solstice. It’s not a stretch to believe the pre-cursor to  Samhain celebrations began as a harvest festival with Neolithic farmers many thousands of years before All Hallows ever came into being.

Let’s look at the Celtic Calendar. Let’s skip a few thousand years to the early Celts, whose pagan celebrations were still set around observing solar years much like their ancestors.  A solar year = 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes approx.. Think of a circle quartered using the equinoxes and solstices, then quartered again at the mid-point between each event to give eight of the major Celtic days of Celebration. Now remember the equinox and solstice dates shift each year.

Because Samhain is a cross quarter between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, and it’s a celebration timed by solar cycles, Samhain doesn’t always land on the same fixed date set out in the modern calendar. For example 2011 Samhain – 7th November, 2013 Samhain 6th November.

The Gregorian calendar I mentioned above, has a cycle of 365 days over 400 years with a leap year of 366 every 4 years to account for the time difference and keep us on track with seasons. However because scientists believe the solar year is getting longer and there were miniscule miscalculations in the Gregorian calendar we will still fall roughly a day behind the sun in a little over 3,000 years. So in 3,ooo years if the calendar hasn’t been adjusted, actual Samhain(pinpointed with the solar year) will shift another day away per this calendar while the Celtic calendar will still hold it at a mid-point between solar events.

How a Harvest Festival became a spookfest. Ancient Celts were incredibly superstitious. The culture is rich with stories of Gods and magical creatures, even ancient vampires. They feared the transition to winter  when the sun was lower and and longer nights closed in, meaning more time for ghosts and the departed to roam the land. This lasted until Bealtaine, when there is another celebration of the light returning. 

One of these ancient Gods was Donn.  Back when Donn arrived with the Miliseans to this land it was yet to have the name Ériu and the mystical Tuatha Dé Danann still ruled. After showing disrespect to Ériu(the Dé Danann queen who later named the country), she told him he would never benefit from the land. He was aboard one of the ships instructed to wait off the coast while the Dé Danann made a decision to fight or concede to their rule. It was a trick and the Dé Danann used druid magic to call a storm that scattered the ships and destroyed Donn’s. As we all know history is told by the victors, and the Miliseans went on to claim the land, driving the Dé Danann underground where they became the forefathers of The Fae.

Donn, however, having been destroyed by druid magic and unable to benefit from the land, was buried on an island off the west coast and elevated to the status of God of the Dead and protector of crops and cattle. His burial place became associated with the otherworld.

Normally remaining on his island where he welcomed the dead before they travelled on, Donn’s House was the last place many saw before being sent to Celtic Hell where they spent an eternity in ice. But, Donn was not just a God. His entanglements with the Dé Danann legends also gave him the title of Fae King of his Realm and Winter. He roamed the land at Samhain when the darkness came and the dead held dominion, and took offering from farmers so that their cattle and land would be kept safe over winter. This also opened the door for all the creatures and spirits of the underworld to come out, turning the light’s End into a night to appease and honour the creatures and spirits from the otherworld.

Donn, Lord of the Dead is often associated as the Celtic version of the Christian Devil. Therefore many customs like walking around a grave three times during the night of 31st October to see the future or risk meeting the Devil stems from a similar Celtic custom where the person risks meeting Donn on the night of Samhain. 

Some other customs for this time of Year

Bonfires will light all over Ireland tomorrow. They are smaller now, when I was a kid, communities spent weeks collecting wood and anything they could find. It was considered an honour to be part of building the bonfire and everyone would go watch it burn. This comes from the old tradition when people doused their fires before sunset on the eve of Samhain. Then gathered around their hearth and waited for the druids to light the first fires of winter.

Trick or Treat is part of the offering up food and other things to spirits of ancestors to entice them to your door, not leaving something would offend them and cause bad luck for the coming year. Later it was also to appease the Fae, who would otherwise cause mischief. Dressing up began with greedy people wanting to take advantage and collect treats left for loved one of others. It was also a means of travelling outside and confusing spirits and the fae because they couldn’t recognize the person underneath.

Pumpkin Carving  didn’t start out with pumpkins. They started out with this:

Not very attractive, right? This is a turnip and it’s from The Museum of Country Life in County Mayo, on the west coast of Ireland. It’s part of the National Museum of Ireland and a Turnip is a traditional Irish root vegetable. 

So, one version of the story goes that Jack was a bit of a blaggard, a drunk and an egit, as we say in Ireland. He was a farmer and by all accounts a lazy so and so. He knew he’d been living his life under the greedy, watchful gaze of the Devil, who was only too eager to get his hands on Jack. He also knew his lifestyle hadn’t been paving the way to heaven but had been pushing him to an early grave, so Jack formulated a plan.

After one of several drinking sessions together, the Devil informed Jack his time was up. Jack agreed to go willingly but had one final request. As they passed under an apple tree, Jack pointed to one of the top branches and begged the Devil to allow him one last taste of the fruit. There is probably a certain irony in the Devil being tempted by an apple, nonetheless he conceded and climbed the tree to retrieve the fruit.

While the Devil was high in the branches, Jack got to work. He surrounded the tree with crosses and even carved some into the trunk of the tree to trap the Devil. Jake refused to release him until he agreed to never take Jack’s soul to Hell.

Years past and Jack lived out his life the way he always had. He lied, cheated and stole his way to his deathbed. Finally, he died. Remembering his deal, Jack attempted to enter Heaven but was refused and directed to the Gates of Hell. The Devil turned him away just as he promised. When Jack asked the Devil how he was supposed to find his way through the world, he tossed Jack an ember from the flames of Hell.

To this day Jack wanders the earth with his ember in his makeshift lantern carved from a turnip as a warning to all. You can’t outsmart the Devil.

When the Irish and British sailed to America in their droves, they brought with them the story of Jack. Turnips were hard to find and so they used Pumpkins to carve Jack ‘O’ Lanterns.


So, I think I’ve mused enough and told enough stories for one day. If you still fancy reading more, you could check out this post I wrote for  Confessions of A Bookaholic about spooky locations around Dublin. (the competition is closed)

Don’t forget my New Adult Horror novella, Unmade, is available as a free download at the bottom of The Books tab of my Facebook page until 1st November. Just like the page to open the FanGate and reveal the download links.


  1. I'd never heard that about Jack o Lantern's origin--very cool!

    It's a perfect day to celebrate Lisa's book, whether it's Halloween OR Eve of Samhain. :-)

    1. It's such a good book. Just had to slip it in there. :)