We thought we’d take a break this week from our “Who Are We Scots?” series (you can catch up on that here) to have a look at the spookiest of all holidays – Hallowe’en.
Many scholars believe Hallowe’en, or All Hallows Eve, originates from the ancient Celtic Festival of ‘Samhain’.
In Pagan times, the Celts celebrated the end of the Harvest season and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, with a 24 hour festival called “Samhain” (pronounced 'sow-in'). The festival began at sunset on 31st October, and ended at sunset on 1st November.
The ancient Celts believed that during the festivities, when they were about to enter the darkness of winter and the beginning of a new year, the doorway into the afterlife would open up for 24 hours, and spirits and fairies of the otherworld could more easily descend upon earth to frolic and cause mischief.
The Celts thought the presence of these otherworldly creatures would help the Druids (Celtic Priests) make more accurate predictions about the future, and allow them to foretell the success of the next Harvest. The Pagan Celts were utterly dependent on the natural world for their survival, and a prophecy of a good harvest would help them get through the long, dark winter ahead.
Special bonfires were lit, which were deemed to have protective and cleansing powers, and the Celts burned crops and animals as sacrifices to their Pagan deities. They would then gather round the massive bonfires and try to contact the spirits of their kin, and find out what the future would hold for them.
Great feasts were also held, and the dead were invited to participate, with places set at the table for the deceased kin to rejoin their families. However, not all the spirits that descended upon earth were friendly… mischievous fairies and darker, sinister spirits would travel through the gateway too, and were there to cause deadly harm. The ancient Celts needed to ward them off, and disguised themselves in costumes made of animal skins to confuse the spirits, and misdirect them towards some other poor, unsuspecting fellow...
As the centuries rolled by, the traditions of Samhain were adopted by various cultures, and folded into Christian practices also. Many years on it has now become the fun evening of trick-or-treating, or ‘guising’ as we call it in Scotland - taken from the word “disguise”. Most of the evening is spent in costume, offering a joke or a song to a neighbour in return for some sweeties and maybe a few pennies if you’re lucky!
However beware…the spirits may be travelling through the gateway to earth in the wee dark hours of the 31st October, so you’d better have a pretty good costume prepared to send them in another direction…!