Wednesday, October 31, 2001

Hallowe'en customs in Bantry Bay, Cork, Ireland, ca.1896

My grandmother, Jennie Walsh Reilly was an active bearer of the oral tradition, she died October 23, 1987, at the age of 93. Ever since I was a young, she'd tell me of Irish customs she practiced from when she was a girl especially Samhain—or Hallowe'en—(Oct. 31st). Many of these calendar customs have died out or transmuted into something else, which was a sore point of contention with her.

I remember how she'd snort as if to set the record straight: "Americans! They don't know anything about Hallowe'en. All this nonsense. They think jack-o-lanterns are made from pumpkins, but pumpkins are a New World food. We didn't even have them in Ireland. We used to carve out big turnips and put a candle in them and placed them in each window of the house so that our dead could see their way back home.

"We'd decorate the window frames with evergreens: ivy, holly, yew. Hallowe'en—or Samhain, which is its proper name—the priests were great ones for renaming all the pagan holidays. You see, they couldn't get the pagans to stop worshipping the holidays. Especially not Hallowe'en which was the first day of the Celtic New Year. You have your All Hallow's Eve, that's Hallowe'en, that's for the pagans; All Saints' Day—that's November 1st; and All Souls' Day, which is Nov. 2nd. That's for all the rest of us.

"Hallowe'en was the time when the world between the living and the dead had thin boundaries, and spirits form the Otherworld could come visit. That's why we wore masks—so they wouldn't recognize us. Sometimes the boys would blacken their faces with charcoal. And we made bull roarers out of pig's bladders on the end of a stick that made a great noise when we whipped it. Sometimes the boys would kill a wren and put it on the end of the stick too.

"There were pranks too. And we'd go visit the neighbors to trick AND treat. It's not trick OR treat. You have to do a trick first. It means that you do a trick, sing a song, recite a poem, and then they'd give you a treat—sometimes an half-penny if they had it. Not like here where kids want candy without doing a trick first. No siree...."

My grannie was very upset with the American commercialization of Samhain; though she was Christian, she had a lively interest in keeping the old traditions alive. In J.H. Brunvand's "The Study of American Folklore," (Norton, 1966), he offers a quote from folklorist Sylvia Ann Grider who noted: "Halloween costumes used to represent the supernatural beings of the otherworld..." (p 574).

From the UC Berkeley Kroeber Hall Folklore Files.

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