Irish Language Blog

Samhain (November 1st) and Lá Caille (January 1st): Two New Years! Posted by on Oct 27, 2010 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

I suppose one could see this as an opportunity for two ways of celebrating the New Year.  The traditional Celtic New Year was November 1st, recognized as Samhain [SOW-in] but not celebrated today as the official New Year.  The January 1st version of New Year’s Day is Lá Caille (lit. day of Calends) – and there are other terms for it as well, but for those, let’s wait till late December.  That’s when we’ll start discussing “an Bhliain Úr,” “Athbhliain,” and the term “Bliain Nua.”

Samhain was also the beginning of winter, opposite to Lá Bealtaine (May 1st), which is the first day of summer in the Celtic calendar.

To discuss Samhain and its eve (Oíche Shamhna) as the roots of modern Halloween could take a book or more, so the next few blogs will just address a few points related to the topic.  I know we covered Samhain around this time last year (ní nach ionadh!), but, given that last October there were around 1900 people reading this blog on Facebook and now there are over 9000 (!), I figured it wouldn’t hurt to revisit the topic.

Samhain, in the traditional Celtic calendar, was both the beginning of winter and the beginning of the New Year.  As with our December 31st-January 1st combo, it’s the eve (Oíche Shamhna) which is the focus of celebration, not so much the day itself.

In Irish, “oíche” [EE-hyuh] means “night” or the portion of an evening that is after dark (changing according to the seasons).  For more on “evening” in general, see “tráthnóna” below.  “Oíche” is the term used for “eve of” for all the holidays I can think of (Oíche Nollag, Oíche Chinn Bhliana, srl.).

Why “Shamhna” [HOW-nuh] and not simply “Samhain” after “Oíche”?  The answer involves grammatical gender, the genitive case, and lenition – a triple whammy.  I could add syncope – a quadruple whammy?

“Samhain” is feminine in terms of grammatical gender and changes to “Samhna” [SOW-nuh] in its genitive case (possessive form).  So you use the “Samhna” form to say “of Samhain” or “of Halloween, as in Samhna (Day of Samhain) and Mí na Samhna (November, lit. the month of Samhain).

Since “oíche” is a feminine noun, lenition is applied to adjectives that follow it (like “oíche mhaith”) and to nouns like “Samhna” that serve to further modify “oíche.”  So we get lenition, resulting in “Oíche Shamhna.”

The second syllable of “Samhain,” (–ain) is reduced to just “-n” when the –a ending is added for the possessive form.   Hence syncope (the contraction or lost of a syllable).  A simple four-step process!

So, whatever way you may celebrate Halloween, keep in mind that it was probably the most festive of all the Celtic quarter days.  Samhain was both the New Year and the beginning of a season.  That has probably contributed to Halloween’s tenacity as a celebration even in the Christian era and to the fact that it has far more visibility in the Irish diaspora in America than the other three Celtic seasonal markers (August 1st, February 1st, and May 1st).  Of course, being juxtaposed with a modern Christian holiday, Lá (féile) na Naomh Uile (November 1), and adjacent to another, Lá na Marbh (November 2), didn’t hurt!  Slán go fóill — Róislín

Nóta a hAon: tráthnóna, evening up until dark and for most senses of “evening” in general, as in páipéar tráthnóna (evening paper, if any still exist); éadaí tráthnóna (evening dress), and Réalta an Tráthnóna, the Evening Star, although hmmm, how dark does it need to be in order to be able to see it?  Réalteolaithe ar bith amuigh ansin?  Of course, “tráthnóna” can also mean “afternoon,” just to add to the mix, but that’s coincheap eile for blag eile.

Nóta a Dó: Pronunciation: athbhliain [AH-VLEE-in]; ionadh [EEN-uh] surprise; Samhain [SOW-in, that’s “sow” as in “cow” or “now,” not as in “show” or “blow”]; tráthnóna [TRAW-NOO-nuh or TRAW-NOH-nuh]

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