Halloween's Scottish Origins by Tom Wallace
Reprinted from the Fredericton Daily Gleaner, Thursday, November 3rd, 1999
A regular reader of The Daily Gleaner, I was very impressed with the Hallowe
'en coverage afforded in the "Today" section of the Saturday, October 30th
edition. Erin McCracken's write-up on various Hallowe'en activities across
New Brunswick was very informative, and I cannot wait to try my culinary
talents at Margaret Demerson's pumpkin recipes. I was also impressed with
the editorial debate on the harm or harmlessness of Hallowe'en, and found
myself finding truth in both arguments.
That said, I was, however, concerned by the inaccuracies listed on Page B1
as "Hallowe'en Quick Facts." As a student of Scottish history and culture,
I wish to offer the following revisions. Hallowe'en did not originate in
Ireland, but was generally celebrated by the followers of the Celtic
religions, ranging from northern France to Ireland, from the Iberian
Peninsula to Scotland. The origins of the modern Hallowe'en do indeed
derive from the Celtic holy day of Sa-mhain (actually pronounced sha-vane)
and meaning "summer's end." In the Celtic belief system, the year was
divided into two main parts; light and dark, summer and winter. Sa-mhain –
the opposite of Beltain ("summers's beginning," celebrated in early May) –
was the first full day of the Celtic year. Celtic religious festivals often
lasted three days – one day before, the holy day itself, and one day
following. Sa-mhain was the high day of Fleadh nan Mairbh, or Feast of the
Dead. This feast, a reaction to the coming of colder weather, was perceived
as the annual thinning of the supernatural barrier between the real world
and the Otherworld (Am Sigh). This short-lived permeability permitted
divine, faerie and demonic beings, the spirits of the dead, and mortals to
move freely between one world and the next. Many of the practices and
symbols we associate with Hallowe'en today – jack-o-lanterns, black cats,
disguises, "trick-or-treating, bobbing for apples, petty vandalism and
mischief – have ancient Celtic roots, and were reactions to the beliefs of
our ancestors that spirits must be discouraged from remaining in this world.
Sa-mhain was also the day on which the constantly burning hearth fires were
extinguished, to be re-lit the next morning with embers from blessed Druidic
fires, symbolic of renewal. With the coming of Christianity to Ireland,
Scotland, England and Wales during the Dark Ages, the pagan Sa-mhain was
transformed into All Hallows Eve and All Saint's Day, but the pagan
traditions associated with "the old religion" persisted for centuries. A
millennium later, these traditions were brought to North America with
successive waves of emigration from not only Ireland, but from Wales,
northern England, and especially Scotland.
In Scotland, for example, the forerunner of "trick-or-treating" survived
well into the twentieth century. At Hogmanay, New Year's Eve on the Roman
calendar, "guisers" would travel from house to house performing a short play
called "Galoshins" or "Galatians," named after one of the central
characters. (Coincidentally, the hero of this performance was often Sir
William Wallace, one of my kinsmen.) Following the performance, the
disguised actors were offered food and drink, moving on to the next home.
In rural England and Wales, the practice was called "wassailing," and
evolved into the Yuletide tradition of carolling. A similar custom persists
today in Newfoundland and Cape Breton, known as "mummering."
Trick-or-treating, central to modern Hallowe'en, can trace it roots back to
the ancient Celtic custom of offering food and drink to wandering "spirits"
on Sa-mhain in order to ensure that the household was not harassed, and
encouraging the "spirits" to return to the Otherworld.
As a Canadian of Scottish descent, it was necessary take this opportunity to
address the popular belief that Hallowe'en is largely an Irish in origin.
It was also part of the Scottish tradition, and Scottish immigrants also
brought their autumnal customs to North America. Just as New Brunswick's
Irish community arrived in the province following the 1847 famine, New
Brunswick's Scottish community arrived amidst the chaos of the land
clearances. Scots, as surely as their fellow Irish and Welsh settlers, are
responsible for the transplanting of Hallowe'en's customs to Canada. And
yet, these vestiges of Celtic culture remain with us today as a testimony of
its strength and malleability. As we sit at the cusp of the next
millennium, it is satisfying to know that the beliefs and traditions of our
Celtic ancestors have survived and have been re-woven into the tapestry of
Canadian popular culture. From all indications, Hallowe'en – Sa-mhain –
will remain a popular autumnal observance for generations to come. The next
time we carve a pumpkin or dole out candies to trick-or-treaters, we should
give a thought to their cultural origins and significance.
For more information on Scottish culture in New Brunswick, please write "New
Brunswick Scottish-Cultural Association," 221 Springwater Ln, New Maryland,
NB, or visit the NBSCA website at www.nbscots.ca.