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We’re All a Little Irish, Even on Halloween

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Turnip O'Lantern. | Image by kayepants, CC.

On St. Patrick’s Day, everyone claims to be a little Irish. But did you know there’s a strong Irish influence on the traditions that surround our favorite costumed holiday?

It’s true. Halloween in the American colonies was a scant affair. While southern colonies were more likely to mark some sort of Halloween celebration than the more Protestant-based New England colonies, overall settlers thought the celebrations were too pagan and too Catholic, drawing from the holiday’s heritage in Samhain and later All Saints Day. These early celebrations often mixed with the harvest festivals of the American Indians to generate a unique blend of Halloween seasonal festivities.

The Halloween celebrations that we are most familiar with gained ground in the mid to late nineteenth-century with the influx of Irish immigrants. For example:

  • The Irish originally carved turnips to frighten away “Stingy Jack,” who made an ill-fated deal with the devil and was forced to wander the world with a lump of coal in a turnip to light his way, which people called “jack-o-lanterns.” Turnips were harder to come by in America, but pumpkins were available and easy to carve—and the name stuck.
  • Halloween night is a time when spirits supposedly walk about and play tricks on people. Ireland is littered with fairy mounds, and the Irish believed that fairies would emerge from their mounds on this night. The practice of costuming and the tradition of tricks on Halloween night is meant confuse these spirits.
  • Halloween night is an optimal time for divination. There are several Halloween games that allow you to predict your romantic future which are played today. For example, young women would toss apple peels over their shoulder in the hopes of seeing the initial of their future husband’s name in the fallen peel. Or they would stand in front of a darkened mirror with a candle in the hopes of seeing their future husband’s face. The practice of telling these predictions gives us the precursor for telling ghost stories on this haunted night.
  • Bonfires were a big part of the Samhain celebrations. But bonfires would attract mosquitoes, which in turn would attract bats, which also became a popular Halloween decoration.

So as you dress up or hand out candy to thwart the tricksters at your door, keep in mind that these traditions are great examples of how we’re connected in ways that may not be readily apparent.

For more on the history of Halloween as it related to the Gaelic festival of Samhain, see this older post from Anthropology in Practice.

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Richieo 7:40 pm 10/31/2013

    I live in Ireland (38yrs) and until the last few years saw no Halloween activity until the last few years, I had assumed this was imported from the US, so very surprised to read this article…

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  2. 2. phalaris 2:47 am 11/1/2013

    Richieo -
    yes, this could be another case of “Invented Tradition” à la Hobsbawm. A good research project for someone interested in real history.
    A Swede interested in real history told me once that their famous Santa Lucia “tradition” was pretty much invented by a newspaper in the 1920′s.
    Where was it I read that the US Thanksgiving was dreamed up by Abraham Lincoln, and that any links to a genuine early settler usage are extremely tenuous?

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  3. 3. Ar U. Gaetü 7:22 am 11/1/2013

    You’re both correct. With “God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance” [Neil deGrasse Tyson], everything religious has become commercialized. For example, where England has “Father Christmas”, the US has a “Santa Clause” whose current image is based more on 1930′s Coca-Cola advertising. Halloween is no different, especially if excessive food or other such celebratory annual purchases can be encouraged.

    As such, I’m surprised Halloween is still on a specific day, and it hasn’t been converted into 3-day holiday weekend to allow more shopping and partying days.

    Stores are selling Christamas lights and trees already. When will it all end? I need to move. Anyone with a cabin in the Canadian Rockies they’re not using?

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  4. 4. Pumpkins: Not Just for Carving and Dessert! | Human Relations Area Files 1:32 pm 10/31/2014

    [...] are increasingly associated with Halloween as carved “jack-o-lanterns” and in the United States with pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving. But around the world pumpkins [...]

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