Irish Halloween Traditions through the Years

A women back lit by a bonfire gives an eerie Halloween tradition

Updated On: November 07, 2023 by   Ciaran ConnollyCiaran Connolly

All over the world, we have been celebrating Halloween as a significant holiday. We carry on all the Halloween traditions and spend a day full of fun and… Spookiness.

While this day is celebrated around the world, people mistakenly believe it to be of an American origin. This may be due to the fact that America has been celebrating this day religiously and consider it noteworthy.

What a lot of people have no clue about is that Halloween day and Halloween traditions originated in ancient Ireland. This can be quite surprising to some, but we are here to prove it and spread awareness.

The History of Halloween Traditions Start in Ireland

Many centuries ago, the ancient Irish people used to celebrate everything that happened in the universe. They even had deities for every occasion. One of the Celtic festivals that the pagans celebrated in ancient Ireland was Samhain. It was the autumn season but according to the Celtic calendar. Samhain is a Gaelic word; its celebration was mostly spiritual. However, throughout the years, it became celebrated rather for fun.

Moreover, that celebration took place from October 31st to November 1st. Its purpose was to welcome the season of the harvest or what was known as the dark half of the year. That was because the cold breeze started to show up. It was a time where they considered the animals and plants to die as they hibernate until the springtime. Then, they bloom for once again.

How Did the Halloween Traditions Start?

In ancient times, the Irish believed that there were strong barriers that separated the real world from the spiritual one. The World of Spirits was full of evil spirits and demons. During the time of Samhain, this barrier supposedly became quite delicate or vanished altogether. It was the time when the evil spirits started crawling into the real world and interact with humans.

Since there are ghosts and other supernatural spirits wandered about in our world, it was quite scary. As a consequence, the Celts used to host a big party where they scare away those spirits. They thought that wearing spooky costumes would confuse them away. So, most of the Halloween traditions carried out were meant to ward off the mean supernatural creatures.

The Relation Between Halloween and Samhain

According to some, Halloween and Samhain are two distinct festivals. That’s because pagans of modern times still celebrate Samhain. However, they both share the same superstitions and performing practices. Besides, they both take place in autumn at the end of October or start of November. Yet, people still associate Halloween with America rather than Ireland.

In fact, upon the arrival of Christianity, Samhain became known as All Hallows’ Eve – the day before All Saints. Every pagan festival was then Christianized. Add to that the fact that a great population of Ireland immigrated to America in the 19th century. They carried out their practices normally until Halloween became a thing in America. And ever since, America has picked up the pace.

Popular Halloween Traditions That Were Originally Irish

Halloween traditions are usually associated with the appearance of the scary-carved pumpkin, freaky costumes, and trick-or-treating. We are even used to seeing those Halloween themes in movies and TV shows throughout October. Especially, in American shows and movies.

But, again, most of those traditions go back to some of the Celtic roots. They were not originally American, but they were adopted by the Irish immigrants who left for the U.S. Check out what these Halloween traditions are and learn about their origins.

The Bonfire

Myth had played a great role in shaping cultures and that of Ireland is no exception. The Celts used to ignite bonfire to bring good luck. Since Samhain marked the beginning of a new year- a Celtic year- they ignited bonfires. It was among the customs of celebrating Samhain; in fact, it was a significant tradition in any celebration. But, in Samhain, it was not only about welcoming a new Celtic year.

It was also to ward off the evil spirits that roam the earth on that day. Huge bonfires specifically used to fend off unrecognisable creatures and ghosts, according to the Celts. The ashes that were left behind after the fire was put out, were also of great significance. They believed those ashes were laden with good fortune. Thus, they took and spread them across the field to ensure blissful years for the farmers.

There was also an unpopular notion regarding the usage of bonfires. People of the Celts had those traditional beliefs that bonfires stimulated your dreams. They actually provided you with vivid dreams about who your future spouse was going to be. The identity of the spouse remained ambiguous and sealed in the shrouds of mystery. However, you had the ability to unravel the identity by cutting your hair strand and dropping it into the fire.

A young girl is illuminated by a bonfire dressed as a which in Halloween Traditions
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Among the Halloween traditions lies the significance of decorating your place with illuminated pumpkins. While they are supposed to look freaky and spooky, we all enjoy having them around. But, let us tell you the real story. Did you know that according to the origins of Halloween traditions pumpkin weren’t used?  Yes, they were more of beets or turnips and they did not look particularly nice. The Celts also used to refer to them as Jack-O-Lanterns.

There are different superstitious and stories associated with Jack-O-Lanterns. In this particular case, we have two versions of the Jack-O-Lanterns story. The first story narrates how people of the Celts used to carry an ember from the communal bonfire. They brought them home to bring good luck and bliss. But, in order to keep the fire ignited, they had to hollow out a turnip. Some do believe that people still carve pumpkins as an attribute to an old tradition.

The other version of the story narrates the tale of a Jack. He was a lazy blacksmith who colluded with the Devil. Their collaboration started when he trapped the Devil with a cross. He freed him only after the Devil promised to never take his soul. Thus, he was denied entry to heaven. He kept walking the earth for eternity and wanted some light so he hollowed out turnip. Nowadays, people believe that pumpkins represent that hollowed turnip. They use them to fend off Jack’s soul.

a carved pumpkin or jack o lantern for halloween traditions
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The Notion of Costumes and Dressing Up

We may have already mentioned that before, but we will elaborate about it in more details. All around the world, wearing costumes is part of the Halloween traditions. When Halloween is here, people lit huge bonfires and gathered around it. They would dress up in weird costumes and scary ones to fend off the evil spirits.

People believed that fires actually scared the spirits and monstrous creatures. Besides, it was hard to travel alone at night. You might risk being kidnapped, thus costumes worked. They confused the spirits tricking them into believing you were one of those spirits. Thus, they let you go free and never kidnapped or hurt you.

People nowadays don’t believe in the mythological notions that people firmly adopted in the past. However, wearing costumes became an integrated part of the Halloween traditions. We now do it for fun.

a group of people dressed up in costume as part of the halloween traditions
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Trick or Treat

Long before people included Trick or Treat as one of the famous Halloween traditions, it was called Souling. That was long centuries ago and there is a reason why people referred to it as such. During the Samhain festival, poor people, especially, children used to knock on rich people’s doors.

They kept going on and on, asking for food or money. Before they had anything, they offered prayers and singing in return. During that time, it was popular to offer those poor a soul cake. It was actually a flattened bread that consisted of some fruits. That was where the name of that Halloween tradition came from. Afterwards, the poor would use all the food and money they collected to celebrate their own Halloween.

children line up to collect treats in costumes as a halloween tradition
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Snap the Apple

There are many games that became part of the Halloween traditions. People enjoy playing, in general, and Halloween games are actually fun. Among those games is Snap Apple. This game involves suspending a number of apples from a string hanging from the ceiling. The participants get their arms tied behind their backs and their eyes blindfolded. Whoever manages to take a decent bite of the apple is deemed the winner and gets a prize.

This game involved a mythical notion that people used to believe in. Apples are considered to be signs of love and fertility, according to the Celts. Thus, the one who gets the first bite is the first to marry. Girls believed that keeping their bitten apples under their pillow at night would make them dream of their future spouse.

Since Celtic girls loved to believe that everything had something to do with their marriage, there was another practice. This time, the practice does not involve snapping an apple, but it involved girls going out blindfolded into the field. The first cabbage to stumble upon says a lot about her future spouse. She could know where he was poor or rich according to the amount of clay attached to the cabbage’s root. The more, the richer. She could also learn about his identity by eating the cabbage.

A young boy partakes in the halloween tradition of snap apple
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Forecasting the Future

Telling fortunes is always fun. Whether you believe in the future prediction or not, we all enjoy hearing what will happen to us in the future. Definitely, we all love to hear good news like getting richer, smarter or meeting the love of your life. While Halloween is actually meant for spookiness, but since it’s all fun and games, it doesn’t hurt to predict a scary future during that time.

During ancient times, the Celtic people used to read tea leaves. It was a popular practice held in the past; however, it was not the only way. Among the Halloween traditions of the ancient Celts was using the four plates to foretell the future. That practice required placing four plates before a person with a blindfold.

Those plates shall contain various things from which the person choose. They included clay, food, water, and a ring. Each of those items symbolized something. Clay was a prediction of nearby death, water meant immigration, food meant prosperity, and the ring meant, definitely, meant marriage.

Obviously, the ancient Celts regarded marriage as a significant part of life, especially women. That’s why they felt incredibly joyful when their choice fell on the ring. Most of their beliefs also revolved around the idea of marriage. There were several ways where they learned about their future spouse. Some women fasted before going to bed so they can dream of their future husbands offering them food.

A crystal ball and a fortune teller hands represent Irish halloween traditions.
Image Credit: cherries/shuttershock

The Resurrection of the Dead

This one on the list is rather a belief that one of the Halloween traditions. Halloween was definitely popular for being the night when ghosts come alive. People believed that the barriers between our real world and the Otherworld were more accessible on Halloween. This allows evil spirits to enter our world and wander about our earth.

It was believed that the dead came back to revisit the mortal world in the form of spirits. However, those souls, in particular, were friendly; they only came back to return to their families. For that, people held some practices that were supposed to welcome back their own dead people. Those practices included leaving empty seats or food out for the dead people to feel welcomed back.

Irish Halloween Traditions through the Years
Image Credit: Scott Rodgerson/Unsplash

Shaving the Friar

This is a very old game that the ancient Celts used to play. However, it was not that popular all around Ireland. It was the most popular in County Meath, in particular. This game was a competitive one. A group of people put a pile of ash in the shape of a cone with a wood piece atop. After piling the ash, the players take turns trying to dig the largest amount of ash. However, they should keep the pile balanced and avoid its collapse. And all throughout the game, they all keep enchanting:

“Shave the poor Friar to make him a liar;

Cut off his beard to make him afeard;

If the Friar will fall, my poor back pays for all!”


Measures to Control the Fairies (Anti-Fairy Measures)

The Irish folklore is full of mythological beliefs that people used to firmly embrace. Among those beliefs was the evilness of the fairies and the goblins. They believed that those creatures roamed about to collect people’s souls, especially during Halloween.

Thus, there were practices used as one of the Halloween traditions to fend off the fairies and creatures. One of those practices was wearing noisy bells to keep them off. Or, you could wear your outfits inside out, so they couldn’t steal your soul. Other practices were throwing dust at the fairies, under the condition of passing it under your feet. That way, you force the fairies to release the souls they already captivated and set them free.

There was an old Irish expression known as “Away with the Fairies.” This expression indicated that someone wasn’t focused on. They tended to say it to those whose attention was elsewhere. Going back to the origin of the belief, legend has it that fairies steal souls away. People also believed that fairies stole little children and replaced them with their own offspring. They used to use the term “Changelings” to refer to children with any kind of mental disorder. Just because they couldn’t explain some children behaviour, they blamed it on the fairy world.


Foods that Are Part of the Halloween Traditions

Every celebration needs special foods and drinks to feast on. All cultures around the world nearly celebrate with food. Since Halloween is celebrated in many regions around the world, each culture may have its own Halloween traditions.

At some point through the history, meat indulgence in Ireland during Halloween was not accepted. Not sure what was the reason behind those Halloween traditions, but there was other popular food for the occasion. Those foods usually included fruits or potatoes- since it is the main food ingredient in Irish culture. The list of those foods includes home-made apple pies and toffee apples. However, you cannot have those delicious dishes before binging on Barmbrack and Colcannon. They were main foods served over Halloween as part of the sacred Halloween traditions.

Most importantly, all of those foods are served in dishes with the “Lucky Penny.” It’s a coin that was believed to bring luck and good fortune. Whoever finds that coin shall keep it to ensure an upcoming year of bliss. Getting to the drinks, Lambswool is the most popular beverage consumed as part of the Halloween traditions. Its literal meaning is Feast of the apples since this fruit is used as the main ingredient during the occasion. Besides, the drink has more than a few recipes, but the bases are the same. The drink’s basic ingredients are cider or wine, milk, and crushed apples.


barmbrack is a halloween food tradition
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This is a popular food that people make during Halloween. It’s an Irish Halloween cake that contains a slice of food inside, sometimes alongside other treats. Well, its more of a sweet bread rather than an actual cake. Ready-made ones that you get from shops contain some different treats within.

Each item means something to the person who finds it. Those items included a coin, ring, thimble, or a rag. The coin indicates that your year is going to be fruitful and successful. Definitely, the ring indicates either that you’ll get married or happiness is awaiting you. The thimble and the rag were deemed to be the unlucky signs, for the symbols they implicated. Getting a thimble means that you’re never going to get married which is a terrible thing in the Irish culture. The rag indicates that your finances in the future are at doubt.

Another Halloween traditions was feeding the fairies and spirits. That way, you would ensure that they bestow good luck upon your place.

Click here for the Recipe of the Barmbrack


Colcannon is a Halloween Traditional dish
Image Credit: Elise Bauer/

Colcannon is just as popular as the barmbrack is. It’s one of the popular foods that show up as part of the Halloween traditions. However, this is not a sweet dish, but rather the main one that people usually have for dinner. You are supposed to have Colcannon on Halloween’s eve. It’s a simple dish where healthy ingredients are put together. This dish includes raw onions, boiled potatoes, as the main ingredient, and a type of cabbage called curly kale.

Just like other dishes of Halloween, this dish hid a precious prize for people to find, especially children. Coins were popular to be slipped into the dish for children, so they can find and keep it. On the other hand, rings were also a common item since people in Ireland cherished the notion of marriage. Legends claim that whoever finds the ring will have their weddings within a year.

Click here for the Recipe of the Colcannon


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