Nowadays, Halloween is most commonly associated with pumpkin spice, Hocus Pocus and crisp, bright autumnal days on the east coast of the United States, but did you know that it has its origins in an ancient Scottish celebration?
‘Samhain’ was a traditional Gaelic festival (also observed in Ireland) marking the end of the harvest season and the onset of winter - the connection between summer and winter, lightness and darkness. The night of the 31st October (the eve of Samhain) was also thought to have been the time when the 'veil' between the land of the living (Tìr nam Beó ) and the land of the dead (Tìr nam Marbh) was at its thinnest, when demons, ghosts and other spirits could easily cross over. Bonfires would be lit to keep ghosts at bay, offerings made to protect cattle and crops, places set at tables for deceased family members, and costumes worn to trick evil spirits.
We can see many of our current Halloween traditions reflected in this pagan festival. For example, young men would wear masks to disguise themselves as animals or monsters so they would not be taken by faeries or attacked by the ‘slaugh’ (a being that stole souls), before going door to door collecting food for the Samhain feast and offerings for the harvest rituals. Alternatively, it has been suggested that children dressed up to impersonate spirits and demons, and then received offerings on their behalf. This has clearly evolved into the tradition of guising that we all know and love today. Samhain was also known as Oidhche nan Cleas or Night of Tricks, where young men would play pranks on faeries; nowadays, this can be seen in the “trick” part of trick-or-treating. Apples were thought to represent life, immortality and the ‘otherworld’. Often, they would be buried on Samhain as food for the souls waiting to cross back over. Children would also go dooking for apples (a game still played today) and it has even been suggested that apples were carved into faces before turnips began being used instead in the 17th century.
Though pumpkins are now the almost universal symbol for Halloween, traditionally it would have been a turnip (neep or tumshie in Scots) that was carved for Samhain. These carved ‘heads’ would have been hung from poles and carried around on Samhain night, again as a way of confusing faeries that might otherwise try to steal the children. Later these would be placed in windows or doorways to keep evil spirits away or scare them back to their own world.
Scottish and Irish emigration brought our Celtic traditions to the States, where they gradually evolved into the huge Halloween celebrations that are now common all over the western world. Though many bemoan the ‘Americanisation’ of this festival, and are disappointed that Scotland has adopted many of the commercial aspects of Halloween, we have to wonder if these traditions would have survived otherwise. Many other Samhain customs have all but died out over the past couple of centuries, for example the eating of fuarag (oatmeal, cream and sugar, with hidden charms such as coins, rings or thimbles which would predict the finder’s future), the burning of nuts on the fire to determine the compatibility of lovers, and leaving out a saucer of milk for the ‘Cait Sìth’ (fairy cat) in order to receive its blessing. Could guising and carving have gone the same way if not for the popularity of pumpkins and ‘trick-or-treating’ across the pond?
As long as we remember that Halloween is rooted in traditional Gaelic culture and continue to teach the reasons behind these traditions to the next generation, I don’t think it matters too much if we carve pumpkins instead of tumshies; it is still a connection to the age-old traditions of our ancestors (and it is much easier on the wrists anyway!)