Samhain - November 5/6 (Celtic Calendar)
Oíche Shamhna - October 31 (Modern Calendar)
Samhain, which literally means the end of the summer, heralded the beginning of the Celtic New Year. It was the time when the boundaries of the sí (the spirit world, also known as sídhe) were thrown open and communion with the spirits was at its most intense.
It was the festival that attracted most interest in Irish literature. Being the beginning of the dark season, it was especially associated with the dead and the otherworld. Many of the supernatural adventures of heroes in the early literature are said to have taken place at this time. The dead ancestors were of great importance in Irish custom and belief, and some of the most significant events in Irish myth and legend took place at Samhain. It was the time, for instance, when the Tuatha Dé Danann defeated their arch rivals, the Fomoir in the great mythological battle of Mag Tuiread. It was the time when the hero Cuchulain was visited by the two beautiful women of the sidhe, Li Ban and Fand. It was also the time that it is believed that the annual great Feast of Tara was held, and when Fionn became leader of the Fianna.
Folklore places great emphasis on Oíche Shamhna (Hallowe’en) as a time when ghosts are abroad and fairies are moving from their summer to their winter quarters. Due to the Church festivals of All Saints and All Souls on the first two days of November, much of the solemnity has gone from the attitude towards Hallowe’en itself. There is, however, a clear remnant of native belief in the tradition.
The lighting of the fires was an essential part of the festival, those on the hill of Tlachtga being among the most significant. It was said of the gathering at Tara, ‘Three days before Samhain at all times, and three days by ancient custom did the hosts of high renown continue to feast for the whole week.’
Superstitions, beliefs and customs...
"It is considered that, on All-allows’ Eve, hobgoblins, evil spirits, and fairies, hold high revel, and that they are travelling abroad in great numbers. The dark and sullen Phooka is then particularly mischievous and many mortals are abducted to fairy land. Those persons taken away to the raths are often seen at this time by their living friends, and usually accompanying a fairy cavalcade. If you meet the fairies, it is said , on All-Hallows’ Eve, and throw the dust taken from under your feet at them, they will be obliged to surrender any captive human being belonging to their company. Although this evening was kept as a merry one in farmsteads, yet those who assembled together wished to go and return in company with others; for in numbers a tolerable guarantee, they thought, was obtained from malign influences and practices of the evil spirits." - Irish Folk Lore, 1870
Samhain / Hallowe'en had much ancient ritual associated with the dead. Marking the beginning of the cold, wet and dark season of winter, it was a time when the living stayed indoors as much as possible. In the old literature, the eerie nature of Oíche Shamhna (Hallowe’en) was conveyed by accounts of cairns and other-world dwellings being open at that time, and of the adventures of ordinary folk who entered them. Many people, in passing by ring-forts and other abodes of the fairies, heard sounds of revelry within, and Samhain, like Bealtaine, was fraught with danger of fairy abduction.
People travelling on this night could easily be led astray by the fairies. To counteract this, the late wayfarer would carry a black-handled knife or have a steel needle stuck in his coat collar or sleeve. If by chance he was led astray, he might disguise himself by turning his coat inside-out, on which the fairies would no longer know him and divert their attentions elsewhere. This dates back to the Celts who wore costumes to disguise themselves as evil spirits and avoid being kidnapped by the real harmful spirits who were out prowling that night. And so the tradition of Hallowe'en costumes began!
The belief also persists that ghosts of the dead are more likely to be encountered at Hallowe’en. Until recently, many people retired to bed early on that night, leaving food and drink on the table for their dead relatives, who it was thought might return to spend the night in the kitchen of their old houses. It was also believed that on Hallowe’en night the spirits of the dead came from the graveyard to the local church, and spent some time praying there. Much of this lore has now become attached to the Church feast of All Souls, two days later.
For thousands of years, fires have been lit on Oíche Shamhna to ward away evil spirits and light the way for good spirits.