I had no idea before I arrived in Ireland that the origins of Halloween are Celtic, nor did I know that Derry hosts the biggest Halloween party in Europe, with three full days of parties, arts, parades, fireworks and a carnival. It was a pleasant surprise.
Before Christianity arrived in the British Isles, the Druids celebrated the Samhain Festival each year at the end of the harvests in late October. It was a kind of New Year’s Eve for these cultures, a time when the bonfires of last year were ceremonially extinguished and relit to symbolize ending and beginnings. All the crops had been harvested – if you left apples on the trees, fairies would spit on them and you could no longer eat them – and all the animals were brought in for the winter months.
Along with the fiery endings and beginnings, this day was a time when the wall between the world of the dead and our living world fell down. Ancestors would be wandering, looking to come back home and people would leave food out in their homes for ancestors who would be back to visit. Of course, along with the spirits of ancestors, malevolent spits – like fairies, banshees or ghosts – were also wandering among the living, and these evil spirits wanted to find living bodies they could inhabit in order to stay in our world. One way to be certain that an evil spirit would not inhabit your body was to dress up as something else and confuse anything lurking around while the veil between the living and the dead was briefly lifted. You could also carve a menacing face into a turnip which you would place outside your home to frighten away evil. If you were very concerned, a candle inside would enhance the effects of the protective lantern.
Of course Christianity and all of the centuries since the Druids lived in Ireland have transformed Halloween, but today it is well known that Derry is the place to celebrate the holiday. Annually 40,000 people storm the city, everyone wearing costumes (and drinking, of course). In the nights leading up to Halloween, the old city walls were covered in a live performance with fire, dancers, fire dancers and acrobats. It was a full carnival for three nights straight. They called this the "Waking of the Walls."
|The Waking of the Walls on the 30th of October|
Halloween brought out a parade, fireworks, lots of pub parties and day-long festival events for people of all ages. The parade at moments felt like the Duluth Christmas City of the North Parade with little ones dancing and bands playing, then suddenly like the May Day Parade in Minneapolis with huge papermache puppets dancing down the street. I can't really speak to trick or treating - I'm not sure I saw any, but I wasn't looking either.
|Our group before we headed out to the events all night|