Monday, 30 October 2017

How Did Halloween Come to be Such A Big Holiday?

Halloween was Celtic New Year and has been celebrated in the Celtic fringes of the British Isles since time immemorial. One of my personal bugbears is when English people complain about it being an American holiday. It is not. It has been celebrated over here for thousands of years. It's just not an English holiday. That does not mean it's not British.

Our Irish, Scottish, and Welsh ancestors have been celebtrating verions for thousands of years. In Cornwall it was called Allentide. in the Isle Of Man it is still called Hop-tu-Naa. The Welsh call it Calan Gaeaf. Children and women would dance around a village fire and, during this process, everyone would write their names on rocks and place them in and around said fire. When the fire started to die out they would all run home, "Adref, adref, am y cyntaf', Hwch ddu gwta a gipio'r ola'." (Home, home, on the double, The tailless black sow shall snatch the last [one].) The following morning, all the stones containing villagers' names would be checked. If, however, a stone was missing, the person who wrote their name on the stone would die within one year. 

Immigrants from all these countries took their traditions to the new world where they were embraced and celebrated until it finally grew into the holiday we know today. Irish and Scottish traditions are similar and closely related and the immigrants celebrated with fireworks, telling ghost stories, playing games,and making mischief. There were games such as bobbing for apples, dooking, the dropping of forks on apples without using hands, and Puicini - an Irish fortune-telling game using saucers. Young women were frequently told if they sat in dark rooms and gazed into a mirror, the face of their future husbands would appear, however, if a skull appeared, the poor girl would be destined to die before marriage.

It took until the 1930s for the holiday to become as widespread as it is today, but as I am Scottish let's look at some of the ways the holiday was celebrated there. 

Halloween -or Samhain- marked the start of the new Celtic year with the celebration bringing light an protection as the darkness drew in. Here we look at nine old customs of Halloween in Scotland, some which are rooted in Celtic times and others which lasted until the 19th Century. From fortune telling cabbage stalks to burning nuts and disappearing stones of the dead, how Scotland marked this important turning point in the calendar is far removed from the celebrations of today.

 Samhain is Irish Gaelic for "summer's end." The standard Irish pronunciation is "sow-in" with the "ow" like in "cow." Other pronunciations that follow with the many Gaelic dialects include "sow-een" "shahvin" "sowin" (with "ow" like in "glow"). The Scots Gaelic spelling is "Samhuin" or "Samhuinn." There is no linguistic foundation for saying this word "samhane" the way it might look if it were English. When in doubt, just say "Hallows" or even "Hallowe'en."

In Scottish Gaelic we say "Samhuinn" as "SAH-vin" or "SAH-win": the 'mh' is sort of somewhere between a 'v' and a 'w'

Halloween, or Samhain, was one of the two great fire festivals of the Celtic calendar and traditionally marked the beginning of the new year. Hallow fires would be kindled to mark the end of the harvest season and the return of animals to the fold. Fires were generally lit on high points of the landscape far from homes and steadings and were seen an attack on the “powers of darkness” at a time of shortenings days and weakened sun, according to McPherson’s Primitive Beliefs in the North East of Scotland. He added: “In particular, the witches were holding high revelry, and their great conventions to work woe upon mankind were assembled on high hill and bleak moorland.

“Man resorted with cheerful confidence to the heaven-given weapon of holy fire.” Debris from Hallow fire would be taken to rejuvenate hearths in the home. The Hallow fire continued to be lit to the end of the 18th Century, according to accounts.

Folk would walk the circuit of their fields with burning torches on Halloween to ward off evil and ensure fertile land for the following year. The mother and father of the house lit splints from a peat fire before passing them to servants and children of the house. They would then head outdoors and tread the border of the property before throwing the splints to the ground and allowing them.

To ward off potentially malevolent entities, large bonfires were lit in communities and it is believed that this practice survives today in the tradition of carving pumpkin lanterns with creepy grimaces. While the use of pumpkins is actually an American invention, in Scotland it has been custom to carve lanterns out of ‘neeps’ or turnips. That's no easy task. The vegetable is very solid and I remember my father's hand aching for a week after he'd worked on one for us kids.

With witches feared to be at full power at Halloween, there was only one place for them - the fire. Boys are said to have gone door-to-door asking for a peat to burn the witch. At Balmoral, when Queen Victoria was in residence, a huge bonfire was set in front of the castle by men dressed in Highland garb, according to McPherson. Among the men was a trolley - known as a shandy dann - which contained the effigy of a “hideous old woman” who was marched at speed towards the fire to the strain of bagpipes. 

Following a sudden stop, a form of charge sheet was read aloud to outline as why the witch should be tipped on the flames. McPherson wrote: “With a rush an a shout and skirling of bagpipes, the sledge and its occupant are hurled topsy-turvy into the fire. “Then follow cheers and hoots of derisive laughter as the inflammable wrappings of the shandy dann cracks and sputters out. “All the while the residents of the castle stand enjoying the curious rite, and no one there entered more heartily into it than the head of the Empire herself.”

In some parts, great attention was paid to the ashes and other debris of the fire. Once the Hallow fire had burnt out, a stone would be placed on the ash to represent each member of the family. The next morning, the family would return to the fire to check the stones. If a stone was missing, the person it represented would be dead before the next Hallow fire was set. This ritual was recorded in Aberdeenshire and Callander with a version also noted in North Wales as stated above.

                                                                    The Seonaidh

The Celtic water spirit the Seonaidh (pronounced Shoney) was gifted a pot of ale on Halloween to bestow blessings on the local fisherman. Reports suggest that people on the Isle of Lewis would gather on the beach while one fisherman waded into the water up to his waist before pouring the ale into the sea.

Richard Waitt's The Cromartie Fool illustrates the Halloween custom of picking kail to determine the nature of a future spouse. 

The old rituals acted out on Halloween often had a hint of fortune telling. Pulling the kail castoc - or cabbage stalk - was noted in a poem by Robert Burns in 1785. Traditionally, a male and female would go blindfolded to the kailyard - or kitchen garden - and pull the first ‘castoc’ that they saw. It size and shape was said to tell the look of their future spouse. The taste would determine their nature and whether they be sweet or sour. If much earth had stuck to the stalk, the dowry on the bride would be substantial. The stems would then be placed over the front door. The name of the first person to walk under the kail would be the name of the husband or the wife. Different versions of the custom exist. On Islay, kail stocks were also important in the celebration of Halloween. In Islay Voices by Jenni Minto and Les Wilson, one account tells of young men stealing kail and taking the stalks to an old woman skilled in using them to read fortunes. 

The kail stalks were sometimes turned into a form of pipe on Halloween for “bundering”. Boys and young men would go door-to-door with their hollowed out pipes, which would be packed with a type of kindling, and blow smoke into homes to purify them. 

Halloween seemed to be the time to search for answers about a future spouse. In a game called 'Win’ing the blew clew' a woman searching for her husband would tease and spin a ball of wool from a male lamb’s fleece and throw it into the fire on Halloween, holding on to the end of a thread. The woman would take this an start winding another ball. When it started to tug , she would ask the fire “Who’s that, that holds the end of my thread?” 

The voice from the fire would ‘say’ the name of her husband to be, according to the custom. In some places, blue yarn had to be thrown into the fire.

Another way to predict a future spouse was to burn nuts. Each nut would be given the name of a likely suitor before being laid on the fire. How the nuts reacted to the heat would determine the course of the courtship. Peas were often used in the ritual too. Two were placed on a live peat, one representing a boy and the other a girl. If the two stayed put on the peat as it burned, a happy marriage was signalled. If one rolled away, it suggested there would be no union.

Guising or ‘galoshin’ is ancient and something the old folks would actually look forward to as they helped the children make their outfits for the holiday.. Instead of trick-or-treating, children would literally disguise themselves as evil spirits by blackening their faces and dressing in old clothes to go guising. According to folklore, this was so that they could venture out safely without being detected by wicked ghouls. Guisers also couldn’t simply knock on the doors of their neighbours yelling ‘trick-or-treat’ and expect sweets in return. They had to perform a ‘trick’ first by reciting a song, poem or joke before being rewarded with goodies. That was the origin of the saying 'trick or treat' yelled by modern children. 

A staple of children’s Halloween parties across the country, this time-honoured game involves trying to grab apples floating in a tub of water using your mouth, with your hands tied behind your back. If you want to up the stakes at this game of 'dookin’ for apples' have a go at catching them with a fork dropped from a high perch on a stool.

However you celebrate this ancient holiday, whether it be sitting quietly at home or surrounded by excited children dressed as spooks and superheroes, have a great one. Happy Halloween.

Creative Commons pictures
Samhain pic copyright Klara Osickova
McPherson’s Primitive Beliefs in the North East of Scotland.


ChristieM said...

Love this post! So interesting hearing how all the different traditions became Halloween!

xoxo Christie

Gloria said...

I'm obsessed with culture and history and just love this! Halloween has always been intriguing to me and I love how much knowledge you gave on this subject.

C.A.Asbrey said...

Thanks so much for your comments, ChristieM and Gloria. I'm glad you enjoyed this post.

ashley said...

oh wow had no idea about all of this Halloween history! these are some great facts! thanks for educating me

C.A.Asbrey said...

Thanks, Ashley.

Judith Ososkie said...

Interesting. I'll need to discover how British Halloween customs played in the 19th century American West, including Native American culture.

C.A.Asbrey said...

Thanks for commenting, Judy.

Fnan said...

I really enjoyed reading this post! So much history about Halloween. I never knew it was originally an English holiday!

life'smanual said...

I did not know the history of Halloween until today. This is very informative post. Thank you so much.