The Celtic year begins at Samhain [pronounced sow-in]. It is divided into two seasons: the light and the dark, celebrating the light at Beltane on 1 May and the dark at Samhain on 1 November. Some believe that Samhain was the more important festival, since it marked the beginning of a new dark-light cycle. It is a time of death and birth, a time of change, where we leave our old life behind and pass out of the darkness into our new life.
When Christianization came to the Celtic people, the religious spin doctors of the day turned this ancient celebration of the changing of the seasons into a scary bedtime story of witches and goblins. This misguided belief still survives in various branches of Christianity today. The Celtic Samhain festival was converted to All Hallows’ Day on 1 November by All Souls’ Day on 2 November. Over time, the night of 31 October and the remnants of the festival dedicated to the dead came to be called All Hallow’s Eve which was eventually shortened to Hallowe’en (Hallow’s Evening) and today it’s Halloween.
Most of the customs and traditions of Halloween that we celebrate today were brought here by Irish and Scottish immigrants. On Samhain eve, children dressed up in old clothes, blackened their faces 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 abroad that night. Any such child who approached a house would be given an offering to ward off evil. As this tradition evolved, children who knocked on their neighbors doors would sing for their supper or tell stories for a gift of sweets or money. This tradition evolved into our modern custom of dressing in costumes for trick or treating. Today, children knock on the door and say “Trick or Treat” but don’t have to sing a song or tell a story for their treat…wouldn’t that be a nice tradition to encourage again?
Bonfires played a large part in the festivities celebrated down through the last several centuries, and up through the present day in some rural areas. With the bonfire ablaze, the villagers extinguished all other fires. Each family then solemnly re-lit their hearth from the common flame, thus bonding the families of the village together. Often two bonfires would be built side by side, and the people would walk between the fires as a ritual of purification. Sometimes the cattle and other livestock would be driven between the fires, as well.
Apples are a large part of fall festivals. One of the most popular games in Scotland still today is dookin’ (dunking) for apples where bairns (children) have their hands tied behind their backs and try and grab apples with their teeth from a basin full of water. Another traditional Scottish custom involving apples is practiced by the lassies to predict their future husband. They carve the peel off an apple in one long strip and then toss it over a shoulder. The peel will land in the shape of the first letter of the future husband’s name. Unfortunately, apple peels love to curl, so those lads with names starting with angular letters like E or T might find themselves overlooked. 😉
What’s your family’s Halloween tradition?
This just in….BBC Scotland features some great images from the spectacular 2010 Edinburgh Samhuinn Fest.