Halloween Traditions in Northern Ireland

The origins of Halloween date way back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in) from around 2,000 years ago in Ireland and the U.K. (here’s the Wikipedia). But these days Halloween in Northern Ireland is more like the generic American Halloween, adopted through TV and movies more than likely, as things were a fair bit different back in the 80s and 90s in Northern Ireland, and more so before then.

Halloween is otherwise heavily influenced by the Autumn equinox and the turning of the seasons in Northern Ireland as the summer ends and autumn begins with the turning of leaves and the harvest festivals in late-September and early-October. Before Halloween arrives on the 31st of October. Anyway, Halloween originates from autumns in Ireland, and with Fanfan celebrating her first Halloween in Northern Ireland, I thought I’d return to the old school traditions from my own childhood in Bangor Northern Ireland (1980s).

Carving Turnip Lanterns

Tbf, we probably would have used pumpkins as Halloween lanterns (Jack-o’-lanterns) in Northern Ireland if they had existed locally at the time. Because they are so much easier to work with given they’re already hollowed out. And it’s just easy to lob off their top, tear out their guts, and carve facial features on them.

But traditionally we would make do with turnips, a root vegetable like carrots or beetroots, only a fair bit bigger. And to make a turnip lantern we would first have to carve out the tough interior, which takes ages, only the resulting ‘jack-o’-lantern’ is 10 times creepier. And this tradition with “turnips or mangel wurzels’ dates way back to the 19th century.

Old School Halloween Costumes

Costumes were fairly limited back in the day for Halloween in Northern Ireland, at least when compared to the aisles of supermarkets and endless online shopping. And while Fanfan did go a bit overboard with her costume design, I kept it old school by sporting a bin bag with holes in it and a cheap plastic mask from the local shop. Coincidentally the same costume I wore the last time I dressed up for Halloween in the 90s (I’m not one for dress-up).

Other popular costume ideas include witches hats, glow in the dark witches fingers, glow in the dark vampire teeth, fake blood. Perfect for the nights out Halloween Rhyming on the run-up to Halloween in Northern Ireland.

Halloween Rhyming

Halloween is coming and the geese are getting fat, Would you please put a penny in the old man’s hat, If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do, If you haven’t got a ha’penny, God bless you! and your old man too!

On the run-up to Halloween we’d dress up and go Halloween rhyming door-to-door in the local area, focussing on the nice houses because they have more money to hand out. We’d then split our winnings at the end of the night. But we did have to actually sing for our pennies on Halloween in Northern Ireland, none of this lazy trick-or-treat business, although we’d get hard-earned money rather than candy and sweets (or a mix of both).

So instead of trick-and-treating at Halloween we’d sing the song below, which is in fact a Christmas song (called Christmas is A-Comin) about fattening up geese for the festive season. Only we swapped the word Christmas with Halloween.

Scary fact, ‘Trick-or-Treating’ was not only untraditional in Northern Ireland, but it was also seen in bad taste following the ‘Trick or Treat killings’ (The Greysteel massacre) because there were really much more sinister goings-on in Northern Ireland during these troubled times in our country.

Indoor Fireworks

Fireworks were pretty much banned because of the whole ‘troubles’ thing going on in Northern Ireland only to be be lifted following a paramilitary ceasefire in 1996. But this ban was again reinstated in 2002 after a number of officers were injured during rioting in Belfast (as here) and we really can’t have nice things here. Bonfires were also relatively common for Halloween in Northern Ireland, or at least in rural area, but we live in a residential area where people save their enthusiasm for bonfires for the 12th July (Anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne).

Instead we’d make do with indoor fireworks which are like tame alternatives found available at most local stores and supermarkets although more these days online. At least some are easier to find than others. The more common included multi-coloured sparklers, bengal matches, and bang bang fun snaps. But for this occasion we went all in with the Indoor Firework Bonanza Pack including ‘Snakes Alive’, ‘Ice Fountains’, ‘Flash Harry’, ‘Disco Inferno’, Sizzline Strobes’, and prepare to be underwhelmed.

Each pack of Retro indoor fireworks contains:

4 Snakes Alive – The original indoor firework
4 Blazing Bengals – Flashing flaming paper sticks that burn in tiger stripes
3 Disco Inferno – Flashing colourful bursts of light
3 Sizzling Strobes – Disco strobing fireworks
3 Flash Harry – Bright flashing flames
2 Ice Fountains – Bright silver sparks fire out these tubes.
25 Bang Bang Fun Snaps
6 Indoor Sparklers

Traditional Halloween Games

Halloween is closely linked to Autumn and the harvest celebrations and halloween treats are therefore autumnal with recurring themes of apples, and nuts, and of course there’s the turnip lanterns. Around the house there will likely be nutcrackers with a big bowl of mixed nuts (almonds, walnuts, and hazelnuts) and a big bag of monkey nuts which are raw peanuts still in their shells. But the favourite Halloween Treat has to be toffee apple which are apples covered in a sugar candy coating and served on sticks.

These foods inspired traditional Halloween games like ‘Bobbing for Apples’ where you have to bite onto apples that are floating in a basin of water with hands tied behind your back. This has been an autumn tradition for hundreds of years. A similar version would be hanging apples on pieces of string and again rules are the same with hands behind the back and you have to grab a bite. In our house we would do this with donuts, or ‘gravy rings’ as we call them here, as they’re much easier to attach to a piece of string. Yet another apple-themed ‘game’ is winning coins (20p, 50p etc.) found baked inside an apple pie.

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