Happy Halloween from Scotland
The origins of Halloween can be traced back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (summer’s end). The Celtic year was determined by the growing seasons and Samhain marked the end of summer and the harvest, and the beginning of the dark cold winter. The festival symbolised the boundary between the world of the living and the world of the dead.
In the 9th century, the Roman Catholic Church shifted the date of All Saints’ Day to the 1st of November, while the 2nd of November later became All Souls’ Day. Over time, Samhain and All Saints’/All Souls’ merged to create the modern Halloween.
It was believed by the Celts that on the night of 31st October, ghosts of the dead would walk again among them, and large bonfires were lit in each village to ward off any evil spirits. All house fires were put out and new fires lit from these great bonfires. In many parts of Scotland it was customary to leave an empty chair and a plate of food for invisible guests. People believed that it was the night when the souls of the dead were set free to roam. They might come into their houses and eat at their tables. The hour before midnight was the witching hour when the departed returned.
While bonfires to scare away the undead are still lit in some areas of Scotland, more usually “neep lanterns” (turnip lanterns) are made by scooping out a turnip and cutting through the skin to create eyes, nose and mouth. A candle is then placed inside to make the lantern. These lanterns are also supposed to ward off evil spirits. Nowadays thanks to the influence of American culture, pumpkins are more commonly used for lanterns.
Robert Burns wrote a poem called ‘Hallowe’en’ that was first published in 1786. It describes Hallowe’en divination and fortune-telling customs. Burns’s love of stories of ghosts and witches led to his famous poem ‘Tam O’ Shanter’. Scots that emigrated to America took their Halloween customs and traditions across the Atlantic. Eventually Halloween came full circle with pumpkins and American style trick-or-treat masks now found everywhere in Scotland. Halloween is massive in America but most people don’t realise that the festival has its origins in Scotland.
Until recently trick or treat was unknown in Scotland. Instead children here dressed up in old clothes, or pretended to be evil spirits and went guising. The custom traces back to a time when it was thought that by disguising children in this way they would blend in with the spirits that went roaming that night. Any such child who approached a house would be given an offering to ward off evil. Guisers had to recite a song, poem or joke before being rewarded in goodies.
Children’s parties are still an important element of Halloween. “Dookin’ for apples” is a Halloween party game which involves taking an apple floating in a basin of water without using your hands. This is another Halloween tradition with its roots in pagan times. The origin of bobbing for apples stems back to the ancient Celts who held apples as sacred.
The Samhuinn Festival in Edinburgh is an annual event marking the Celtic New Year. Presented by the Beltane Society, the event features a spectacular procession of fire, music, dancing, theatre and fireworks and takes place along Edinburgh’s famous Royal Mile.