[Editor's Note: the following is a guest post from David McNicoll of Highland Experience Scotland which specializes in heritage travel in Scotland.]
The end of October is a time of change: the landscape is a blaze of autumn colour as the trees prepare for the cold depths of winter; frosts begin to nip in the air and the last harvests are gathered as we bid farewell to the bounty of summer. It was an important time for our forefathers who relied heavily on the seasons and the natural cycle of things for their livelihoods; and many of our familiar festivals and holidays celebrate this ancient routine: and none more so than Halloween.
Today in our commercialised world, Halloween is a children’s holiday of trick-or-treats and costume parties; but for our ancestors it had a profound importance, and the various ritual associated with the festival had a significance that we find hard to comprehend in this day and age.
In Celtic Ireland and Scotland the end of October, beginning of November was the time of An Samhain, a festival and feast that commemorated the final harvest of the year and laid preparations for the winter ahead. It generally lasted three or four days and was punctuated with ritual and custom that shook off the old year and welcomed the new. Ceremonial rites gave homage to a myriad of gods and various trials and sacrifices were endured in order to guarantee the good grace of these gods and hope that winter would not be too hard and that spring would come early. Bonfires were lit, cleansing the land; trials of fire and water to cleanse the soul and the men of the village dressed up as spirits or imitated the dead to scare off evil demons and purify the air. Like many Celtic festivals it was complex and multi-layered; celebrating both the tangible and the mysteries of the otherworld. Farming lives revolved around the natural and supernatural and these time-honoured events gave peace, hope and solace to the people.
One of the cornerstones of that farming life was cattle husbandry. Cattle were prized and highly valued – they provided milk, dung for fires and fertilizer and their meat saw many through the harshest days of winter, when there was precious little else to eat. Right up to the 19th century they were like a currency in the Scottish Highlands, and a man measured his wealth in the number of head he had. So, it was a hard decision to decide which to slaughter to provide the all important meat stock over winter. And the kill had to be handled in a solemn and honoured manner. An Samhain was the time to decide, and often the cattle themselves went through the purification trials of water and fire – to prepare them for the afterlife. The bones of those killed would be thrown on the bonfires to ease that passage. Then all the fires in the village would be extinguished, and then relit by a flame from the bonfire. This brought everyone together in a sense of community and helped build that bond.
Fire was also taken to light candles in lanterns made from turnips; indeed the Gaelic name for both the lanterns and the bonfire was Samhnag. The turnip was an important crop, feeding both man and beast and saw many communities through famine. It was the tradition to carve scary faces into the lantern as part of the process of warding off the evil ones. The guisers (as the men-folk dressed in costume were called) then went round the village shooing away the spirits and demons, and did so by visiting house to house.
Does much of this sound familiar? Many of the old Celtic customs have come down to us in one form or another, and over time An Samhain developed into our modern Halloween. Many Irish and Scottish immigrants toNorth America took these age old traditions with them and firmly rooted them into the community life there. On both sides of the Atlantic Halloween evolved along slightly different paths, but at the core the substance remains essentially the same.
There was a religious element too. In Roman times, there were similar festivals held at the end of the summer, and around 610 AD, the Christian authorities evolved them into the feast of All Hallows, or All Saints. Prayers were said for the dead on the 31st of October, with mass held on the 1st of November for saints known and unknown. This festival reached Ireland and Scotland around the 9th century and was quickly amalgamated with the old traditions to form a quasi-religious, semi-pagan celebration. An Samhain became Hallowmas (or All Saints Day), and An Oichde Samhain (the night before) morphed into All Hallows’ Eve, or Halloween.
Many early settlers to Americabrought the Christian beliefs of Halloween with them, with the children dressing up to go ‘trick or treating’ to ward off witches and other minions of the Devil. The old ways came too of course, but instead of turnips the colonists carved pumpkins. Back home in parts of rural Scotland, even to this day, the children dressed up to go ‘guising’ and the lanterns are still made of turnips. The trials of fire and water are still with us – who reading this has never dunked (or dooked) for apples? In Britain though, the bonfires were moved to a different date – the 5th of November, as we commemorate the foiling of the Gunpowder plot to kill the king and parliament in 1605. Across the nation, bonfires are lit echoing the burning at the stake of Guy Fawkes and his conspirators. And in the Gaelic calendar An Samhain now corresponds with the whole month of November.
So whether you are trick-or-treating, guising or lighting bonfires take a moment to reflect on where these traditions came from, and what it meant and how much it meant to your forefathers as they faced the uncertain winter months ahead.
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This article was written by David McNicoll, who runs Highland Experience USA. His travel company specialises in vacation and tour packages toScotland, including ancestral trip and many other tailor-made excursions. firstname.lastname@example.org
For more info please visit http://www.highlandexperience-usa.com.
Photo: Samhuin, Samhuin Fire Festival, Edinburgh, Scotland, 2007, by Geoff Wong via Flickr used under Creative Commons License 3.0.
©2011, copyright Thomas MacEntee