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The Celtic New Year


The idea of the Celtic Year, and its commencement at Hallowe’en or Samhain, was advanced by Sir John Rhys (1840-1915). For evidence of it he relied, inter alia,  on the habits of the ancient Celts, the contents of Irish legend and an ancient Irish glossary, Sanas Chormaic (Cormac’s Glossary), plus evidence of the statements of Manx mummers provided by Kelly, an author of a Manx-English dictionary. He also relied on his own discussions with old people on the Isle of Man, who had talked about the recognition of the New Year in the past. They – and also the mummers - had said that Hallowe’en had been called “New Year’s Night”, and various customs relating to this new year, with means of prognostication for the next twelvemonth, were practised. However others in other localities recognized, and practised the same customs on, the conventional New Year’s Eve (Rhys 1888, 514-5; and 1901, 1:315-321). Frazer followed Rhys in providing arguments that the Celts dated the beginning of the year from Samhain (Frazer 1907, 315; 1913b, 1: 224-5).


Hutton describes Rhys’s evidence as “flimsy”.[1] He makes a sarcastic comment that Rhys “corrected” the wording of a passage in the Sanas Chormaic to support his view (Hutton’s quotation marks). What Rhys actually did was to compare the two different manuscripts of the Sanas Chormaic, one of which he emended on the basis that the language had been tampered with. The other supported his view that “the month before the beginning of winter was the last month”, ie of the year. Rhys states, accurately, that this was accepted by O’Donovan in his introduction to the Leabhar na gCeart (Book of Rights).[2] Hutton omits to mention the fact that one of the manuscripts supported Rhys’s view without any emendation.


Hutton goes on to assert that Rhys was uncomfortably aware that the Hallowe’en customs might simply have been transferred, in recent years, from the conventional New Year’s eve to Hallowe’en, to increase merriment and fundraising on the latter. He adds that “He got round this problem by asserting that, in his opinion (based on no evidence at all) the transfer had been the other way round”.


This is a highly inaccurate way of describing what Rhys says. Rhys does say that, though he has not been able to map the Isle of Man according to the practices prevalent at Hollantide, he has the impression that January is gaining (over November). He also says that it would be natural to expect that the Calends of January would have some of the associations of the Calends of winter transferred to them and vice versa (Rhys 1901, 317 and 321). What he means by “associations” he then goes on to explain in five particular types of custom. But he was not trying to prove that all the customs on the conventional new year’s eve had been transferred from Hallowe’en, and uncomfortable because he was not achieving it. His point was simply that, in some places on the Isle of Man, there had been an observance of new year at Hallowe’en and various customs, continuing in Rhys’s day both on the Isle of Man and in Wales, went with that observance. Why some of the customs were observed on the conventional new year’s eve Rhys does not discuss. But it might be, for instance, that in some cases these were commenced more recently than the ones at Hallowe’en, rather than transferred from Hallowe’en.


Besides that, Hutton’s stance on this issue is far-fetched. One can possibly understand his idea that moving the customs to Hallowe’en might increase merriment and fundraising, if we assume that for some reason these things are better accomplished at Hallowe’en than at the conventional new year. But it is hard to see why the new year itself should have been transferred to Hallowe’en in recent times.


So Rhys’s evidence remains as valid – and for me persuasive - evidence supporting the idea of a Celtic Year beginning at Samhain. I therefore agree with Frazer where he says that "we may with some probability infer that they reckoned their year from Hallowe'en" (Frazer 1913b, vol. 1, 224). Hutton goes on to discuss the Ulster story Tochmarc Emire (The Wooing of Emer). From its contents he accepts that the Celtic New Year might have been at Samhain. So, one might wonder, what was the point of the contemptuous attack on Rhys in the first place? In a later chapter Hutton draws a distinction between the situations in Ireland and Wales, asserting that there is “a great deal in the Welsh material to refute the idea” of the year beginning at Samhain (Hutton 1996, 410). But he was simply relying on the views of other scholars, expressed in telephone conversations, and no details of such refuting evidence are provided.[3]


[1] For the material in this section see Hutton 1996, 363.


[2] O’Donovan 1847, at page lv, writes: “if there be no error of transcribers in Cormac’s Glossary, we must conclude that the last month of Foghamur, ie that preceding Mis Gamh or November, was the end of their summer, and of their year”.

[3] Hutton 1996, 515. To progress enquiry as to the position in Wales, traditions in Wales might need to be considered. Besides Rhys’s evidence, Revd. J. Fisher (1895) at p.8 asserts that Celtic tradition as a whole favours 1st. November as New Year’s Day, but that such tradition is “not quite unanimous”.

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