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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.

Yours, aye

Tom Wallace