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The Milk House: Halloween, from its birthplace

Ryan Dennis for Progressive Dairyman Published on 18 October 2018

All hail to the countryside when it comes to candy on Halloween. There were only a few houses on the roads in either direction – most of them relatives – but, boy, would they fill your bags up.

They knew they wouldn’t get a lot of visitors, so they tipped most of their candy bowls into your sack. In a half-an-hour, trick-or-treating was done and dusted. You nearly felt bad for the poor town kids who had to work hard going door to door for a solitary Snickers bar or Almond Joy.

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Now, unfortunately, I’m at the age where all my candy has to be bought and then eaten across from the disapproving scowl of a girlfriend. On the other hand, here in Ireland – where Halloween started – kids collecting candy on the 31st isn’t such a big thing. In Dublin, I’m told, it is popular for youngsters to go around receiving nuts, apples and money (two out of the three of which don’t excite me).

In rural Ireland, practical jokes are more common. An old classic is switching gates between farms, causing farmers to have to make a few phone calls in the morning. A few generations ago, one might block a neighbor’s chimney so their entire house fills with smoke or blow pepper into the keyholes of the door to cause everyone inside to sneeze uncontrollably. Those wild Irish.

How did we get to Halloween in the first place? A little history coming at you: October 31st was the last day of the year in the Celtic calendar, on which they celebrated the festival of Samhain. To the pagan ancestors, the festival marks the end of the farming cycle, in which all the crops would have been gathered and stored, and livestock penned back up to be slaughtered or bred.

Fires were ceremoniously extinguished by the Druids (spiritual leaders of the Celtic religions) and then reignited, signifying the casting away of that which is old and the welcoming of the new. Still today, many bonfires are lit around Ireland on Halloween (sometimes by hooligans burning old mattresses and debris).

Most importantly on Samhain, however, the souls of the dead were released, some of them malevolent spirits. Masks were worn to confuse the dead spirits and keep them from recognizing people they didn’t particularly like during their lifetime. (Grudges die hard.) Sometimes the living banged pots and pans to drive the spirits away from the homes they once lived in.

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Those in North America will recognize many Halloween traditions started in Ireland. The aforementioned masks, called fiddle faces, were made out of cloth or burlap sacks with yarn glued to them. They were later worn by boys going to farmhouses seeking food or money.

The carving of pumpkins (or rather turnips in Ireland, since the island didn’t used to have pumpkins), started with the folklore of a blacksmith named Skippy Jack. Skippy Jack tried to trick the devil into paying for his drinks and, as a punishment, couldn’t enter heaven or hell upon his death. (The Irish have always taken their drinking very seriously.) As a conciliatory gesture, the devil gave him a piece of coal, which he kept inside a turnip as he wandered the earth.

Some traditions are less familiar off the island. Divination is still practiced in some houses in Ireland. Young people call on the dark arts to foretell their future, placing four plates on the table: one with water, a plate with clay, another with a ring and a fourth plate with either salt or straw. After being blindfolded, an individual is asked to put their hand into one of the plates. Some plates are more fortuitous than others.

If a person puts their hand in the clay, it means they will experience an early death, while the plate with the ring signifies getting married young. If they put their hand in the water, it suggests the individual might travel or even emigrate from Ireland, while the straw/salt plate represents coming prosperity.

There are still other types of divination practiced. Some look at the moon or wind to try to decipher the weather over the next few months, while some young girls eat an apple at midnight and stand before a mirror in order to see the face of their future husband looking over their shoulder.

Though some of the old rituals still exist, history could never just let pagans be pagans. In the seventh century, the Catholic church jumped in and appropriated the old Celtic tradition, declaring Nov. 1 “All Saints Day.” Samhain became “All Hallow’s Eve” or “Evening,” from whence we get Halloween.

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Ireland seems to have been successful in taking it back from the church, however, as Derry, a city in Northern Ireland, hosts the world’s largest Halloween party. Each year, 30,000 people gather for parades, spook shows, bands, haunted houses and, well, pure devilment (though the devil pays for no one’s drinks).

In Galway, where I live, everyone gathers for a famous parade supported by the Arts Council, and then … well, devilment. This year it looks like I might be spending my Halloween in town. I have a feeling I can find a few mischievous spirits wandering the city streets. And if not, I’m sure I can catch a lift out to the countryside to switch a few gates around.  end mark

Ryan Dennis is the son of a former dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer.

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