Spooky History of Samhain

Today marks the beginning of the long awaited week of Halloween. We’ve been preparing for this spooky holiday by tweeting our most mysterious lines of poetry and learning all about Samhain, the pagan Celtic festival from which our Halloween derives. We thought we’d share some fun facts with you!

Samhain (pronounced sah-win or sow-in) celebrates the end of the harvest season and beginning of winter, the time of year often associated with darkness and death. The Celts believed that on this night, those that died the previous year were free to roam around the earth. In order to ward off the evil spirits and beg the sun to stay, the Celts made large bonfires and dressed in costumes, typically made of animal heads and skins, to protect themselves. However, they kept their doors open to encourage kind spirits of family members to enter and spend the night. Some even set place settings at their dining table to encourage the deceased to share a meal.

Turnip Jack-o-Lantern

In early Samhain traditions, turnips were carved, instead of pumpkins, and lit from the inside. Irish turnip lantern. Retrieved from Wikipedia.

Our modern tradition of trick-or-treating comes from the Celtic tradition of “mumming” and “guising,” which involves going door to door dressing in costume, exchanging verses of poetry for food. (What a great idea!) These costumes were thought to mimic or scare the spirits that were roaming the night.

These traditions were modified when Christian missionaries gained influence in Ireland and then came to the United States with immigrants. For instance, “trick-or-treating” may have originated in communities where neighbors had to visit one another to gather food for the Samhain feasts. By the mid-twentieth century, Halloween in America became more centered on children to prevent young people from committing crimes. Many Neopagan and Wiccan communities still celebrate Samhain today.

This Friday, take a look around your own community and see if you can spot any remnants of Samhain traditions.

-Posted by Courtney and Brittan

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Poetry for Samhain: “The Andean Flute” by Derek Mahon

As Ireland prepares to celebrate Samhain (pronounced “SAH-win”), a Gaelic festival marking the beginning of winter or the “darker half” of the year, Derek Mahon’s mystical poem perfectly encapsulates the mood of the celebration. The month-long holiday, which will commence at sunset on October 31, is celebrated in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, and is known as the source for our own “dark festival” (otherwise known as Halloween).

The Andean Flute 

He dances to that music in the wood
As if history were no more than a dream.
Who said the banished gods were gone for good?

The furious rhythm creates a manic mood,
Piercing the twilight like a mountain stream.
He dances to that music in the wood.

We might have put on Bach or Buxtehude,
But a chance impulse chose the primal scream.
Who said the banished gods were gone for good?

An Inca frenzy fires his northern blood.
His child-heart picking up the tribal beam,
He dances to that music in the wood.

A puff of snow bursts where the birches brood;
Along the lane the earliest snowdrops gleam.
Who said the banished gods were gone for good?

It is the ancient cry for warmth and food
That moves him. Acting out an ancient theme,
He dances to that music in the wood.
Who said the banished gods were gone for good?

-Derek Mahon, from The Hunt by Night (1982)

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“Wouldn’t trade it for gold”: Music and the Irish spirit in Broadway’s Once

A few weeks ago, the first US touring production of the Tony-award winning Broadway musical Once gave a weekend of performances at Charlotte’s Belk Theatre. The show is based on the 2006 Oscar award-winning film of the same name, with music by Markéta Irglová and Irish singer-songwriter Glen Hansard. It tells the story of a down-on-his-luck Irish busker and a young Czech immigrant—identified only as Guy and Girl—who meet by chance in Dublin. In the words of Girl, “their lives have stopped” due to a series of crippling romantic heartbreaks, but through their shared love of music, they help bring each other back to life.

Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal as Guy and Girl in the National Touring Cast of Once (photo via playbill.com)

I have long been a fan of the film and the music, having discovered the Original Broadway Cast recording two years ago. My sister saw the Broadway production during Arthur Darvill’s (of Doctor Who fame) run as Guy, and she gushed about the show for weeks. Needless to say, when I found out the touring production would be in my area during my birthday weekend, I was thrilled. I had to go.

The show has an astoundingly “intimate” feel. The cast includes only a dozen or so people and—most interestingly for a musical—no orchestra. All instruments are played by the actors as they perform onstage. I love this concept because it strips away the layers of large-scale grandeur often associated with major Broadway productions. There are no big-budget effects; instead there is simply great heart and beautiful music showcased by the performers’ incredible talent. The use of actor-musicians also allows the show to eschew the musical theatre convention of characters randomly bursting into an elaborate song-and-dance routine in an illogical fashion. This show focuses on very real people making real music in believable circumstances. The audience is invited into this world from the moment they enter the theatre with a special pre-show event, admittedly one of my favorite moments. The onstage set is the interior of an Irish pub, and audience members are invited onstage to buy a drink from the working bar as the cast members perform a set of Irish and Czech folk songs before the show starts. We were treated to rousing renditions of “Leaving of Liverpool,” “The Chandler’s Wife,” and a heart-wrenchingly tender performance of “Raglan Road,” which perfectly set the tone of longing for lost love in which the show opens. From there, one of the characters turns to Guy, asking him to lead a song, and the house lights gradually dim through the first verse, seamlessly transitioning into the show.

The delicious romantic tension between Guy and Girl and their budding relationship certainly drive the plot; Girl is drawn onstage by this first song, and she quickly learns of Guy’s heartbreak that has led him to lose his sense of direction and purpose. She observes that “your heart is not finished; I can hear it in your voice,” leading them on a whirlwind adventure to get a band together and record an album to help Guy win back his lost love. However, this show does not fall into the trap of typical love stories. Like the film, it remains very much about people who have an impact on our lives without necessarily becoming a permanent part of it. The secondary characters are also developed beautifully, putting as much focus on the impact Guy’s music has on their community, best seen in the Act I finale, “Gold.”

Dublin earns attention as a character as well. As one actor muses, “A million times heartbroken, and Dublin keeps on going. You have to love Dublin for dreaming.” The characters are emissaries for the place; the spirit of Irishness and pride for Irish culture and music pervades the show. This spirit of community culminates in the final song, a reprise of “Falling Slowly,” which the cast sings together as Guy and Girl reflect on the impact of their time spent together after they go their separate ways. I left the show wishing I could stay for the next performance. For me, once was not enough.


Once: the Musical can be seen on Broadway through January 4, on London’s West End until March 21, touring throughout the US, or in its new Australian production.

-posted by Katie H.

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