On October 31st we celebrate Halloween. Our children dress up as witches and superheroes’ and go from door to door singing, ‘Trick or Treat’. We eat barmbrack and apple tart and we bob for apples and eat our body weight in chocolate, ‘candy’ and monkey nuts.
When I was a child we used to sing ‘Penny for the Púca’ although I didn’t know what a púca was or even how to spell the word. I’ve since found out that the ‘púca’ was a mythical creature in Celtic Folklore, a shapeshifter, who could assume a variety of forms including human, although usually with a tail. As an animal, it most commonly took on the shape of a black horse with a flowing mane and golden eyes. Black Beauty, eat your heart out! Legend tells us that Brian Boru, High King of Ireland was the only man ever to ride the púca. The púca can be mischievous and enjoys frightening humans whenever it can but it also has been known to lead humans away from danger. I still don’t know why we wanted pennies for him, or when we dropped our Irish customs in favour of the American ‘Trick or treat.’
Halloween is an ancient celebration which stems back to the ancient Celts and was adopted by Christianity. Our ancestors called it Samhain, and it marked the end of the harvest and the start of the dark days of winter. The ancient Celts believed that on this night, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred, and the ghosts of the dead returned to earth These ghosts caused all sorts of trouble so the Druids (Celtic priests) built sacred fires where the people gathered to sacrifice crops and animals. Hence: the word bonfire, meaning ‘fire of bones’. People dressed in costumes made from animal skins and heads as disguises to frighten away spirits. They carved out turnips with scary faces to ward off evil spirits and used them as holders to carry home an ember from the bonfire to re-light their hearth fires. The following day the ashes from the sacred bonfire would be spread over the fields to ward off the spirits from interfering with the following year’s crops.
We no longer sacrifice animals on our bonfires and the turnip has been replaced by the pumpkin. We no longer fear the spirits of our ancestors but pray for them the following day on All Souls Day, clever move on behalf of the Christian Church. We no longer believe in ghouls and ghosts. Or do we?