The Celtic Origins of Hallowe’en: Samhuinn in New Orleans

In a city as steeped in the supernatural as New Orleans, it is only natural that Hallowe’en is one of the Crescent City’s most loved celebrations.  Costuming, known as “guising” in Scotland, is part of most celebrations in New Orleans, as are street parties, performance art, and revelry.

Whether attending the annual Witches’ Ball at the Van Benthuysen – Elms Mansion, catching throws at the Krewe Of Boo parade, or getting down at Voodoo Fest, New Orleanians embrace the spirit of Hallowe’en with a customary gusto. But Hallowe’en is not all candy apples and parties. According to historians, its origins date all the way back in time to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhuinn.

For the ancient Celts, each year was measured in a circular, not linear, fashion.  As the great wheel of the year turned, it was celebrated by various equinoxes and solstices and anchored by four main festivals – Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh, and Samhuinn.

The Celtic year began with Samhuinn, which was celebrated in the last days of October and marked the end of summer and harvest and the beginning of winter. As the days became colder and darker, the boundaries between the world of the living and the world of the dead also grew thin, allowing ghosts and other otherworldly creatures to enter the world of the living.

While the ancient Celts believed these eldritch visitors were not necessarily unwelcome, as time went on, and the traditions changed, people began to use costumes and masks to confuse unwanted supernatural callers, giving rise to the modern tradition of Hallowe’en costumes.

Over the centuries, Samhuinn and other ancient festivals and traditions were absorbed by new religions. With the rise of Christianity across Europe, many traditional Celtic celebrations, such as Samhuinn, were repressed, reinvented, and absorbed into the new Christian traditions and feast days. Yet, even now, many Hallowe’en traditions still reflect their ancient origins.

When Pope Gregory III (731 – 471) expanded the Catholic feast of All Martyrs Day (established by Pope Boniface IV in 609 A.D.) to include all saints, he also moved the day of observance to November 1. In 1000 AD., the church declared November 2, All Souls Day, and with November 1 now commonly called All Saints’ Day or All-hallows, the night before – October 31, the traditional night of Samhuinn – became known first as All-hallows Eve, and, eventually, as Hallowe’en.

In Mexico, families visit graveyards on November 1 and 2 (Día de los Inocentes and Día de los Muertos), while according to tradition in New Orleans, families visit the city’s magnificent graveyards on All Saints Day to beautify the graves of lost loved ones. But on Hallowe’en night in Edinburgh, Scotland, the age-old traditions of both Samhuinn and Beltane have been brought back to pagan life by The Beltane Fire Society.

The Society celebrates all four cornerstones of the Celtic year –  its Beltane Festival takes place on Calton Hill on April 30, while Samhuinn is celebrated on the cobble streets of Edinburgh’s Old Town on Hallowe’en night.

“Edinburgh’s Old Town has historic significance as a site of ancient markets and All Hallows fairs, street theatre and performances – especially of the Galoshan plays from which our performance takes its structure,” Tanya Simpson, the online communications coordinator for the Beltane Fire Society told WWOZ.

The Samhuinn performance embodies the overthrowing of Summer by Winter, explained Simpson, portraying a stand-off between the Summer and Winter Kings overseen by the Cailleach, a Celtic representation of the Goddess, or Divine Hag.

“The transformation from Summer to Winter is supported by the energies and interactions of the Summer and Winter courts – through performance, music and dance,” said Simpson “The narrative focuses on this conflict and its resolution, but also focuses on the transition that many aspects of life take during the changing of the seasons.”

Something to think about when enjoying New Orleans’ upcoming Hallowe’en events!

More information about the Beltane Fire Society in available at beltane.org

In the spirit of Samhuinn, a supernatural Music in the Glen will feature Celtic songs of ghosties and ghoulies and long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night. Don’t look behind you!

Music In The Glen, live from New Orleans  every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 11.30 a.m., on WWOZ 90.7 FM at  https://www.wwoz.org/listen/player/

 

 

 

 

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Tara O’Grady’s New Orleans Love Song

During March 2014, Irish Jazz singer Tara O’Grady found herself, as one does, on an Irish Channel parade float, throwing cabbages and potatoes to crowds on Magazine Street while singing Danny Boy.

“I was completely unaware that there was an Irish community in New Orleans,” remembered O’Grady. “Watching all those New Orleanians catching Irish stew vegetables was my introduction to a tradition that I was completely oblivious to – but now am completely enthralled by.”

O’Grady was so enthralled that, on the way back home to New York City, she began writing songs for her fourth album – aptly named Irish Bayou – which mixes American jazz and blues with Celtic story-telling, and a playful sense of shared history..

In 2015,  O’Grady performed in New Orleans as part of the 2014 International Famine Commemoration.

“That was my father’s first visited to New Orleans,” said O’Grady. “He is first generation Irish, and the first live street performer he encountered in New Orleans was a fiddle-player performing traditional Irish tunes. So, in New Orleans, we found a home away from home.”

Born just a few blocks away from Louis Armstrong’s house in New York City, O’Grady grew up surrounded by Irish traditional music, but it was jazz and swing – including the music of New Orleans’ greats like Louis Armstrong and Louis Prima – that stole her heart.

“Louis Armstrong wrote about New Orleans’ Irish Channel in his memoirs,” said O’Grady. “It was a rough and tough town back in the day. During his childhood, he wrote he never entered the Irish Channel because the Irish who lived there were tough – which is saying something because Louis grew up in an area nicknamed “The Battlefield.”

“So, the Irish are part of the gumbo that makes New Orleans a unique American city,” said O’Grady. “In New Orleans, just like in New York, Boston and Philadelphia, Irish flags can be seen on front porches throughout the city.”

According to O’Grady, the intertwined history of New Orleans’ myriad musical traditions, and the common threads that tie its diverse cultures together, were the inspiration for Irish Bayou, her latest album.

“The history of the Irish in New Orleans, from the thousands who died digging the New Basin Canal (Dem Dry Bones) to New Orleanians like Kate Chopin, author of The Awakening (A Rude Awakening –Kate O’Flaherty’s Blues) all inspired ideas for songs about the Irish in New Orleans,” explained O’Grady.

“New Orleans has a multi-cultural atmosphere, so writing Irish Bayou came naturally, with no agenda,” said O’Grady. “And it draws from a number of multitude of genres – jazz, folk, blues, zydeco and rockabilly – all woven together by the theme of the Irish in New Orleans.”

“But,” she laughed. “It was a WWOZ Jazz and Heritage Station DJ after hearing one of my tracks, who told his audience to ‘get yourself a heaping helping of Tara O’Grady.’ And that became a song about muffalatas, beignets, and chocolate pecan pies – A Heaping Helping of My Love!”

More information on Tara O’Grady is available at Tara O’Grady

Gerry O’Beirne’s New Direction

As a singer, songwriter, world-class guitarist, and producer, the Co. Clare native Gerry O’Beirne blends elements of traditional Irish music with contemporary original songs.

A well-known solo artist, O’Beirne has toured with such well-known folk luminaries as Patrick Street, Andy M. Stewart, Kevin Burke, the Waterboys, Midnight Well, and the Sharon Shannon Band.

However, no matter where he goes, said O’Beirne, he always looks forward to “working his way down south towards Louisiana.”

“If you could organize your life the way that you would like it, I would stay in New Orleans for a month,” laughed O’Beirne. “But it doesn’t often work out that way.”

During his long career, O’Beirne’s music has always incorporated dimensions of literature and art. 1874, a track from his 2010 collaboration with fiddler Rosie Shipley, Yesterday I Saw the Earth Beautiful, was inspired by the very first impressionist exhibition that took place in Paris in 1874.

His 2008 album, The Bog Bodies and Other Stories: Music for Guitar, features two haunting pieces inspired by the Irish “bog bodies,” the centuries-dead cadavers found naturally mummified in the peat bogs of Ireland and Eastern Europe.

“Bog bodies are people fashioned by the bog, and processes in the bog, so that they now almost look like works of art themselves,” said O’Beirne. “In my music, I tried to give a heightened sense of them as people, but also, in a funny way, that Mother Earth sort of took them back, and made them into works of art.”

In December 2015, O’Beirne performed  Trèo, a popular bar and art gallery in New Orleans.

In Irish Gaelic, trèo means direction. According to Trèo’s owners Pauline and Stephen Patterson, that meaning is apt when describing both the bar, and the bar’s location on Tulane Avenue. Both, said Pauline Patterson, are “following new directions.”

“Trèo is predominately a bar,” explained Pauline Patterson. “But its direction is the arts, whether that art is food, cocktails, the art of conversation, or music. Our December art events include artists who live outside the States, but have connections with New Orleans. Because Gerry O’Beirne’s music takes Irish music in a new direction, he really suits the theme of the December show.”

O’Beirne is currently working on a new album that highlights life in Dingle, Co. Kerry, by telling tales of famine towers, canny Irish horse trainers, and romantically eccentric locals.

“People often say you can’t speak about music,” said O’Beirne. “But I always think that one art form responds very easily to another. People are extraordinary creations. Cities can be extraordinary creations. And whether you live in New Orleans, New York, or Dingle, your obligations for living there are cultural ones.

Information about upcoming events is available at Trèo

Information about Gerry O’Beirne is available at Gerry O’Beirne