Saturday, October 24, 2009


Although the last day of October is celebrated in many different countries and cultures, the modern day festivities surrounding Hallowe'en are distinctly Celtic in origin.

From dooking for apples to going guising (or trick and treating as it is known outside Scotland) the customs now associated with October 31 stem from the ancient celebrations of the Celtic New Year.

Samhain, as it is known in Gaelic, marks the end of summer and the onset of the long dark nights of winter. It was at this time of year that the last harvest took place and fires were extinguished and then relit.

In ancient Celtic belief the turn of the year was the most magical of times when the veil between this world and the next was at its thinnest and the dead could return to the earth and futures could be foreseen. It was also regarded as a time of mischief and trickery when pranks would be played and roles reversed.

Many of these practices were considered with suspicion and fear by the early Christian Church and in an attempt to put a stop to such ungodly goings on the church created its own festivals to take place at the same time of year as Samhain.

As a result October 31 became all Hallows Eve or Hallowe'en and November 1 became All Hallows Day, All Saints Day and All Souls Day, a time of remembrance and celebration not a million miles away from its pagan predecessor.

Although Hallowe'en has become the favoured modern day title for the festivities the Celtic influence is still prominent in many of the games and traditions carried out at this time of year.

Hallowe'en lanterns, for example, were originally a means of lighting the dark nights and keeping travellers safe from wandering spirits and fairies while "dookin" for apples may have been a form of predicting the future.

This Hallowe'en favourite, which challenges participants to retrieve apples from a basin of water with their hands tied behind their backs, is believed to have once been used to foretell coming marriages. Being the first person to bite an apple out of the basin was considered a sign of impending nuptials.

Predicting the future with lucky charms is another ancient tradition which has survived in the form of special Hallowe'en cakes and mixtures containing coins, thimbles and miniature horseshoes.

Guising too derives from Celtic tradition. The pagan Celts would leave gifts for the fairyfolk they believed wandered the countryside at Samhain and it was customary for people to go round their neighbours asking for donations for the New Year feasting.

Add to this the belief that the world was in a state of chaos at the turn of the year and capers and carryings on were commonplace and it is not too difficult to spot the influences on modern day guisers and trick or treaters.

Even the habit of dressing up in costumes and organizing fancy dress parties at Hallowe'en can be traced back to pagan times when participants in the new year festivities would disguise themselves as the ghosts, fairies and spirits who were believed to be present at that time of year.

Although the traditions are centuries old their appeal still endures with parties, films, cakes, toys and recipes all devoted to Hallowe'en. However, despite many of the traditions having strong Scottish and Celtic roots the celebration of Hallowe'en has become more popular outside Scotland, particularly in countries like the USA.

In Scotland itself the bonfires that used to be lit to herald the start of the new Celtic year have made way for the fires and fireworks marking the downfall of Guy Fawkes and his doomed attempt to destroy the English Parliament in 1605.

But many of the other customs remain and with two celebrations inside a week it's perfect preparation for the modern day festive season of Christmas and the new Scottish New Year.

I would like to see Hallowe'en over take Guy Fawkes and become the main bonfire night in Scotland myself!


mangocheeks said...

This has been an interesting read for me. I am a Welsh person living in Scotland. Many of the Scots people I talk to assert Bonfires in Scotland stem from Guy Fawkes. Your entry highlights otherwise.

I love the images of Scottish Hallowe'en. Might just have to share it with some of my Scottish colleagues. Thank you for sharing.

Gimmer said...

I am so glad you enjoyed it. Please come back. I post things about Wales and Scotland and sometimes Ireland here.

The Rams Horn

The Rams Horn on Facebook