Monday, October 31, 2016

Halloween's Celtic Roots

The Irish Gift House asks, did you know that Halloween and many of its traditions can be traced back to Ireland?
Samhain, pronounced Sah-ween, is a Celtic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter.  Samhain straddles the time between autumn and winter that coincided with the periods of abundance and shortage.  On the verge of the darker half of the year, Samhain marked the last opportunity for fun, but it was also a time of enhanced superstition.
Halloweens Celtic Roots
The festival starts in the evening of October 31st and continued through November 1st, Samhain indicated three critical dates in the Celtic calendar: the end of the year, the beginning of the year and the start of winter.   The date is roughly between the fall equinox and the winter solstice and Samhain is one of the four Celtic seasonal celebrations, the other three being Imbolc on February 1st, Beltane on May 1st and Lughnasadh on August 1st.  These important dates were traditional observed in Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man, and also in parts of Brittany, Cornwall and Wales.
Many important actions in ancient Irish tradition happen or begin on Samhain.  It was the time of the year when livestock were brought down from the summer pastures and when animals were slaughtered and stored for the long cold winter.
Because Samhain was consider a threshold time the souls of the dead could more easily travel between worlds and invariably they would return to their former homes where they were welcome.  Meals were prepared  and the souls of dead love ones were gestured to attend with a place setting left for them at the table.

A traditional Samhain dish that continues to be served today is colcannon with charms hidden in the  potato and cabbage dish.   The charms that were found in the colcannon were seen as a indication for the future.  For example, a button meant you would remain a bachelor, and a thimble meant you would remain a spinster for the coming year; while a ring meant you would be soon married, and a coin meant you would come into wealth.   Take a look at our New Taste of Ireland cookbook and the simple colcannon recipe.

The ancient Celts would light large bonfires to aid the dead on their way.  The bonfires were also lit as protection from the potentially evil spirits and fairies that were also able to move more freely between this world and the otherworld during Samhain.  Additional rituals related to bonfires included throwing a clipping of your hair into the raging fire and then later while sleeping you would dream of you future love.  Another practice involved ushering the cattle between the fires as a cleansing ceremony after the bones of the previously butchered stock had been thrown into the bonfire.  This fire of bones eventually evolved into our vernacular as bonfire.

Bobbing for apples is another ritual that originated with the fall festival; the implication was the first single person to effectively bite and grab an apple would be the next person to marry.   The consequence may be unknown to today's participants, but bobbing for apples is offered at many Halloween parties.

The earliest Halloween costumes, in the form of hollowed out animal heads, can also be connected to Samhain.  The rational was these scary costumes would protect the human by scaring away the evil spirits that had entered from the otherworld.   Many would leave gifts of food outside their doors in an effort to keep these evil spirits from entering their homes believing that the offerings would be appeasing.   These two combined rituals are partially what evolved into today's trick or treat.
In  an effort to remove many of the pagan rituals from Samhain the Catholic Church in the 9th century changed the date of All Saints' Day to November 1st and added November 2nd as All Soul's Day.  Eventually these three days formed what we know as the modern Halloween, but it wasn't until large numbers of Irish immigrated to the United States in the 1800's that these traditions took hold in this country.
Have a safe Celtic inspired Halloween and please remember that from Irish gifts to Celtic jewelry The Irish Gift House is your one stop Irish shop. 

Friday, October 28, 2016

Celtic Jewelry

The use of Celtic knots and designs in jewelry dates as far back as the 5th century BC as evidenced by torques that have been found by archaeologists.  These ornate torques with their unending lines were worn around the neck of nobles and warriors who believed that energy from the jewelry would be transferred to the wearer and subsequently it would act to ward off evil.   Additionally the suspected vitality of the torque was considered another layer of protection in battle. 
Celtic Bracelets: The Irish Gift House

The ancient Celts believed that the particular metal of the object held significance and related silver to the moon and gold to the sun: those with less affluence and influence has to settle for the more common and relatively accessible bronze or iron for their jewelry construction.          

Book of Kells Jewelry: The Irish Gift House
In due course these torques evolved into Celtic bracelets and the interlaced and uninterrupted lines that decorated the jewelry became more elaborate.   By the time the Book of Kells, a opulently decorated manuscript containing the four Gospels of the New Testament, was written in the 8th century AD, Celtic designs had undergone a brilliant transformation that is demonstrated in the animated illustrations and complex embellishments of the treasured book.   Today you will find these elaborate designs in the Book of Kells jewelry.

Dating back 5,000 years to the stone age, Newgrange, a temple with large passage tomb, was built in Co. Meath, Ireland by the local farming community.  Very deliberately, the passage and chamber are aligned with the rising sun at the Winter Solstice thus celebrating the renaissance of the sun after the shortest day of the year.  Many of the megaliths that surround Newgrange are decorated with carved art with the most impressive and recognizable being the entrance stone which is engraved with the tri spiral design that is often found on Newgrange jewelry.   

Many early cultures paid homage to trees and the ancient Celts were no different.  They believed that trees were the foundation of life and that they held mystical powers that represented balance and harmony so it was natural for the symbolism of the tree, often with its supplemental Celtic
Tree of Life Jewelry: The Irish Gift House
knots, to be worn as ornamentation and jewelry.  Today it is common to find the icon as tattoos and as Tree of Life necklaces and earrings.
The monolith Celtic crosses that dot the Irish landscape are some of the most recognizable icons of early Christianity in Ireland.  Many of these monuments, including Cross of Scriptures at Clonmacnoise, are decorated with ornate figure carving and detailed knot work with the principal characteristic being the circle connecting the arms.  As a sign of faith, Christians are often encouraged to wear a cross around their neck so it is very understandable that the Celtic cross necklace would become the symbol of choice for those of Irish and Scottish heritage.

In 1850 a rural woman in Co. Meath, Ireland found an ancient Celtic brooch
Celtic Brooch: The Irish Gift House
that was buried in a sandy beach.  Purely for marketing purposes the brooch was named after the Hill of Tara that is traditionally accepted as the seat of the High Kings of Ireland.  The Tara brooch was made circa 700 AD and illustrates the highly developed craft of goldsmithing in early Ireland.  The much copied Tara brooch now resides at the National Museum and is regarded as one of Ireland's ancient treasures. 

Celtic Wedding Bands: The Irish Gift House
Through their continuous lines the knot and spiral designs in Celtic jewelry symbolizes the wealth and clarity of the ancient Celts.  One of the primary symbolisms of the unending Celtic knot is the representation of endless love so the designs have easily been equated to marriage and thus the popularity of Celtic knot wedding bands 

Celtic Necklaces: The Irish Gift House
The Irish Gift House is proud to offer a full range of jewelry that includes Celtic necklaces and Celtic earrings that is completely made in Ireland.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Irish Christmas Traditions

Candle in the Window - Irish Christmas TraditionIt seems that the Irish were born to celebrate; just look at St. Patrick's Day, weddings and even wakes for the fun evidence.  Christmas is certainly no different, and while it is a religious season, it is also a time for merriment and festivities that have developed many time honored Irish traditions.

The Candle in the Window:
In the late 16th Century, England imposed Penal Laws in Ireland which effectively outlawed the Catholic Church and the Catholic Mass. The faithful Irish did not think well of these English mandates and a candle was placed in the front window of a home to indicate to others that this was a safe place for priests to perform Mass.

The meaning of the candle in the window, that was traditionally lit by the youngest member of the family, has since evolved into a welcome sign for the Holy Family; it can also represent the love for a family member who cannot be home at Christmas. It is now common to see the front windows of Irish homes lavishly decorated with several electrical candles and lights at Christmas time.  This once exclusively Irish Christmas tradition has now transcended to Christians throughout the world.

Another candle related tradition is the lighting of an Advent wreath.  Advent starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and ends on Christmas Eve.  With each ensuing Sunday during the Advent season an additional candle is lit in preparation of Christ's birth; each week has its own theme: hope, peace, joy and love. 

The Irish Gift House features Advent wreaths with Celtic knots; for additional illumination we also have an assortment of light up Irish angel tree toppers too.

Midnight Mass:

Throughout the world, no matter how much they intended to go more often, many Christians go to church only at Christmas; sometimes even the faithful in Ireland fail to go to church every week.  It is an annual tradition on Christmas Eve to attend midnight mass and the Churches in Ireland are full to capacity. For many Irish, the Midnight Mass is a social event shared by friends and family as much as it is religious celebration. Friends will visit with prayer, the singing of Christmas Carols and some good conversation.
Irish Santa at The Irish Gift House
No Milk and Cookies for Santa:
Just before going to bed you will want to leave the traditional Irish treat for Santa Claus.  No it is not milk and cookies but a pint of Guinness and a mince pie. 

By the way, The Irish Gift House has a grand selection of Irish Santa figurines

The Holly Wreath:
For many generations the holly wreath has been traditionally placed on Irish front doors during the Christmas season.  While many in Ireland's past could not afford store bought decoration, even the poorest of the poor could afford to gather the abundant sprigs of holly and every home was decorated with a holly wreath.

In Celtic mythology, the holly was the sacred twin of the oak tree; the deciduous oak was the controller of the sunny summer months while the evergreen holly controlled the dark balance of the year. The Druids believed the holly to own shielding characteristics that offered protection against evil spirits and magical powers.  Celtic lore believed that bringing the leaves of the holly tree inside during the cold months would provide sanctuary from the winter chill for the wee fairy folk, who in return would be generous to those who lived in the home.

Christians have also given the holly tree special reverence as it is believe that holly formed part of the crown of thorns worn at the crucifixion and it was Christ's blood that gave the holly berries their red color.  Christians are also credited for giving the holly tree its name which was derived from the word holy.

Decorating with a wreath on your door is another Irish Christmas tradition that has evolved to become common for Christians throughout the world.
Please visit our Irish Christmas Decorations category at for additional ideas that include several hundred Irish Christmas ornaments and on their own separate page, the Belleek ornaments.  We also have an assortment of Irish Nativity scenes and ornaments along with a collection of Irish nutcrackersThe Irish Gift House is your one stop Irish Christmas shop
Irish Christmas Ornaments at The Irish Gift House