That Curious Love of Green

All Hallow’s Eve

All Hallow’s Eve

The darkest hour is just before dawn and it was at this time a man heading for the fair noticed a dark stranger walking silently behind the cart.

afraid he speeded up to put some distance between them.  When he felt he’d gone a good way he turned to look but the man was still there, still behind the cart, still silent…

His heart beating fast the man tried to speed away again but it was no use, every time he turned to look the silent stranger was still there so he did the only thing he felt he could do, he offered the stranger a lift…

The stranger hopped noiselessly onto the cart.  When they reached the town the stranger gave him a sixpence and left.

Relieved to be rid of the stranger the man went into the local pub for a drink, paid with the sixpence and pocketed the change.

Next in a local shop he reached for the change in his pocket only to find the sixpence still there! Once again he paid and pocketed the change but all day long no matter how much he spent the sixpence he still had it.  As it was becoming dark again he grew frightened, he tossed the sixpence into the yellow river and headed home.  Some people say it’s there to this day…

This story as told me by my mother was the kind of tale you could expect to hear around the fire on a night like tonight, All Hallow’s Eve, Samhain, the division of the year between the light half and the dark half.

For ancient Irish people this was a frightening time because they worried that the declining sun might never come back. For Christian Ireland who adapted the feast and so for my parents and grandparents the fear was an even greater one, it was a very real fear of meeting the dead…


Much like in ancient Ireland it was tonight that was celebrated.  For people who were used to simple fare the whole month of October was filled with thoughts of and preparation for the great feast that would take place through midnight tonight.

Apples and nuts and berries collected all autumn and turned into jams and cakes were stored in preparation.  All day today the mothers and grandmothers would be busy making toffee apples, boxty dumplings and potato cakes while the fathers and grandfathers kept the home fires burning bright.  Sloe or apple wine stored in the rick of hay a month before would be brought in for the table.

In the early evening the games would begin and the bonfire lit, they didn’t know it but this was an ancient symbol of man’s attempt to assist the weakening sun across the skies.  The children went bobbing for apples and coins, played blind mans buff and danced around the bonfire but no child would be left alone and no one would be out if it happened to be a moonless night…

Aside from the feast of food it was also the feast of all saints and so very important to the people of the time.  All thoughts would be for local people who had died.  Despite the now religious connotations the belief was the same, that this was the one night the souls could wander the earth, and would!

For people in 1940’s Ireland before electricity autumn was a golden time with a kind of magical light you wouldn’t find any other time of the year but then once winter ascended the dark and decay of the season was all around and keenly felt for people who lived by candlelight.

My mother remembers going to wakes in the dark lanes, holding her mothers hand, seeing the bodies of people you knew in dark houses and then home again.  You knew the people as they had lived, you saw them in death and you had no problem imagining them as ghosts! Everyone believed it.  A combination of fervent religion and ancient belief in the season of dark and shadows.

One lovely tradition was when the feast had ended the table was reset and another feast laid on all night for the wandering souls…and one less lovely one was leaving a hollowed out turnip with a carved face and lit candle at a spot where someone was reputed to have seen a ghost! This was done purely to scare someone who was already scared, a trick of sorts!

When I was a child Halloween was a magical night too because my mother worked hard to make it so.  We too had bonfires, played all the games and enjoyed the feast.  We also dressed up and went trick or treating, not done in my parents time but adapted from the mists of time when people dressed up for protection from bad spirits.

To my mind there was something magcial about Halloween, dancing around the bonfire and walking the lane we felt there could be witches and ghosts about, it was a little scary but unbeknownst to us we felt much like the ancient Irish, we felt protected by our costumes!  One thing we didn’t feel however was any fear of the dead or meeting anyone who had died.  This was a welcome change from my parents childhood, Halloween had become more about fun than fear.

So tomorrow night when millions of children around Ireland, the UK and America dress up and go trick or treating few will be aware of its ancient Celtic roots and of what it meant to the millions of people who went before them…




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