The origins of Halloween have their roots in a Celtic festival known as Samhain (pronounced sah-win). This is a celebration of the end of the harvest season in Gaelic culture. It was a time used by ancient pagans to take stock of supplies and make their preparations for winter.
The ancient Gaels believed that on the 31st October the boundaries that separated the worlds of the living and the dead overlapped causing the deceased to come back to life and cause devastation by way of sickness or damage to crops. The festival would often include a bonfire to ward off the ghosts of the dead, supernatural beings such as witches and warlocks who were able to walk the Earth for this one night of the year.
The traditions associated with Samhain have evolved and are mirrored back to Scotland by their Atlantic neighbours. The Christian Church turned Samhain into All Saints Day or Hallows’ Eve and from there it was later shortened to Halloween. In 19th century America, Irish and Scottish immigrants revived the traditions that evolved into the national obsession of dressing up and receiving candy.
Trick or treating, pumpkin carving, bonfires and dressing up have become vital components of the hugely commercial Halloween celebrations. But, tradition dies hard and Scotland has held onto her historic appreciation of Halloween, best reflected in Robert Burn’s poem, aptly titled Halloween (1975).
So what does Scotland do differently?
Guising or ‘galoshin’
A historical Scotland saw children disguise themselves as evil spirits by blackening their faces and dressing in old clothes to go guising. Folklore reveals that in their disguises children could venture out safely without being detected by wicked ghouls. There are still some places where the tradition of guising is strong and children go from house to house performing poems or songs for a reward. One such place is in the heart of Argyll where sits Dunadd, the capital of the ancient overkingdom of Dalriada. Trick or treating has not yet replaced, and hopefully never will, the traditions of guising but children do now receive a treat for their performances and they dress up in more modern, popular Halloween attire.
Dookin’ for apples
A common game at Halloween parties across the country. This time-honoured tradition involves trying to grab apples floating in a tub of water using your mouth or teeth while your hands are tied behind your back. There are some adaptations that see children hold a fork in their mouths and try to stab the apples as they bob just out of reach.
Scones hanging from ropes that are covered in treacle are approached by challengers. The participants end up rather messy. A modern version of this are the less messy caramel and chocolate dipped apples you can buy at the supermarket on a stick!
This is perhaps the most curious of past traditions that is relevant to the recently engaged. It is used as a measure to see whether a couple will live happily ever after. Both partners toss a nut each into an open fire. If the nuts quietly smoulder amongst the flames then the union will be a good one. If they hiss and crackle on the naked flames then you union will be in for a bumpy ride.
The Scots also made their lanterns out of turnips until the pumpkin arrived and it has to be said they do make superior lanterns!
The Modern Homage to Halloween
Of course Halloween is a massive commercial event these days that can involve decorating your house, spooky parties, trick or treat, dressing up for work, buying and giving away buckets of candy, carving pumpkins to make lanterns, and watching the latest scary movie at the cinema.
There is plenty of plastic out there ready to decorate your home for the occasion. But, to inspire a more traditional atmosphere and reach back to the roots of Halloween perhaps we owe the occasion a little more finesse.
Halloween is strongly associated – still – with witches and bonfires, spirits and ‘dookin’ for apples. But nowadays we make neep (using pumpkins) lanterns instead of placing skulls on poles to scare away evil spirits! Getting back to the roots of Halloween lends a little more authenticity to the occasion. After all, in pagan times the walking dead were a genuine concern for the living who dedicated a night of festivities to keeping them at bay.
Decorating your home the traditional way
Will you be placing a lantern on your doorstep or window ledge to ward off evil spirits?
Or will you be decorating your house with Skulls, cobwebs, booby traps, creepy crawlies, and playing eerie music?
How about a Ghostly gallery (photocopying Victorian portraits and mounting on ghoulish cardboard frames). There will be plenty of sweets filling everyone’s homes but how about some more traditional toffee apples and monkey nuts.
Dim the lights and create your spooky ambiance with minimal lighting, add a dash of colour with a green lantern, or add dancing low lighting using flickering candles.
The Scottish traditions live on and amidst the brilliant backdrop of a wintery, mixed terrain, ruin filled landscape Halloween parties and guising are a strong salute to how their ancestors marked the occasion.
Whatever you are doing this Halloween make sure you do not forget where all this stemmed from and decorate your home with gusto!
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