In the Beginning…
Halloween began as a Celtic harvest festival. The early Celts marked the end of summer with a festival they called Samhain (pronounced sow-in). As part of these celebrations they built fires and burnt animals as sacrifices. Samhain means “summer’s end” in Gaelic, according to the Indo-European Etymological Dictionaries.
However, because ancient records are fragmentary, the exact nature of Samhain is not fully understood, but it was thought to be an annual communal meeting at the end of the harvest year, a time to gather food reserves for the winter months and bring animals back from the pastures. It is possible that Samhain may have been a time of communing with the dead, according to folklorist John Santino.
“There was a belief that it was a day when spirits of the dead would cross over into the other world,” Santino has said. Such moments of transition in the year have always been thought to be special and supernatural.
But according to Nicholas Rogers, a history professor at York University in Toronto, “there is no hard evidence that Samhain was specifically devoted to the dead or to ancestor worship.”
“According to the ancient sagas, Samhain was the time when tribal peoples paid tribute to their conquerors and when the sidh [ancient mounds] might reveal the magnificent palaces of the gods of the underworld,” Rogers wrote. Samhain was less about death or evil than about the changing of seasons and preparing for the dormancy (and rebirth) of nature as summer turned to winter, he said.
The Christianisation of Halloween
As Christianity began to spread across Europe, the early Christian church had a policy of deliberately replacing dates in the old pagan calendar with new Christian holy days. Thus, the first of November became ‘All Saints’ Day or ‘All Hallows’. All Hallows’ Eve first appears in 1556 but the word Halloween is Scottish in origin with evening being called ‘even’, ‘e’en’ or ‘een’ in Scots.
The History of Halloween in Scotland
The Reformation brought about a change in how the church perceived Halloween. In many parts of Britain, Halloween began to wane and many of the old Halloween traditions were incorporated into Guy Fawkes Night after the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. However, the Presbyterian church in Scotland took a more pragmatic stance with regard to Halloween. It was seen as important to the life cycle and rites of passage in Scottish communities.
Then in 1785, the poet Robert Burns wrote his poem Halloween, which tells of many of the local Halloween Traditions found in Ayr during his lifetime. The popularity of his poem saw a resurgence in interest in Halloween out with Scotland.
The Puritans who colonised the Americas, were strongly opposed to Halloween and there is little evidence of widespread practice of Halloween in the States, during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Then an influx of Scottish and Irish migrants saw Halloween being embraced and incorporated into American culture to the point where the States could now be said to be the Halloween capital of the world.
Scottish Halloween Traditions
People believed that ghosts roamed the streets on Halloween night. Children would disguise themselves as evil spirits by blackening their faces and dressing in old clothes. Thus disguised, they could venture out safely without being detected by malevolent spirits. In time, masks replaced the blackened faces and costumes began to be worn. However, these guisers simply could not knock on their neighbours’ doors and shout ‘Trick-or-treat’. They had to earn their treat by telling a joke, reciting a poem or singing a song.
To ward off evil spirits, large bonfires were lit and ‘neep lanterns’ were laboriously carved out of turnips. When Europeans arrived in the States, they realised that pumpkins were far easier to carve as they were soft. So today, the pumpkin has become the vegetable of choice for making Jack-o-lanterns.
Dookin’ for Apples:
A staple of Halloween parties, this time-honoured game involves trying to grab apples floating in a basin of water using your mouth, while your hands are tied behind your back.
The aim of this messy game is to take a bite out of treacle (molasses)-covered scones hanging from string while your hands are tied behind your back. Inevitably your face ends up covered in sticky gunge.
Traditionally Halloween was not just for children. Young adults could also entertain themselves with games which would reveal their future spouse. An apple would be peeled in a long strip, then the peel would be tossed over your shoulder. The peel was believed to land in the shape of the first letter of your future spouse’s name.
For newly engaged couples, another fortune-telling game existed. To find out whether or not you and your beloved would live happily ever after, the couple would toss a nut each into an open fire. If the nuts smouldered quietly next to each other amongst the flames, then the union would be a good one, but if they hissed and crackled, then beware!
Traditionally toffee apples and monkey nuts (peanuts still in their shell) are eaten at Halloween.
A Quirky Law:
The Witchcraft Act of 1735 forbade the consumption of pork pastries at Halloween. It was not repealed until the 1950s!
Happy Halloween wishes from everyone at Spooky Scotland!