Did you know that many of the most famous Halloween traditions have ancient Scottish origins? The Celtic festival Samhain is one of the four quarter festivals, and the first day of the Celtic new year. This transition between old and new year was a time of fire festival. Halloween, All Hallows E’en, is the night where lanterns (Gaelic: samhnag) and Hallowfires were supposed to scare wandering souls or spirits away before All Saints Day on 1st November. In Gaelic, Samhuinn means hallow-tide or season, and Samhuinn is used in Gaelic for the entire month of November.
Samhain was a Celtic harvest festival marking the end of summer and celebrating the old New Year at the turn of the season into winter, and many of the traditional activities were connected with food. The ancient Scots invented many practices to appease the spirits which they thought were on the roam at this time. For example, the ‘spirits’ would be offered parcels of food. This was the origin of the practice of guising, a word which comes from ‘disguising’, or travelling around in costume. Traditional customs are documented in the famous poem “Halloween” by Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns. When the Romans arrived in Scotland they adopted the Celtic practices as their own. But in the first century AD, Samhain was assimilated into other Roman celebrations that took place in October, such honouring Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple, which might explain the origin of our modern tradition of bobbing for apples on Halloween.
Halloween moved to America in the nineteenth century with Scottish and Irish emigrants, only to return to Europe towards the end of twentieth century. Its growing economic importance as a source of merchandising and even of tourism-related activities is increasingly in evidence. In Scotland and Ireland, turnips were used for Jack-O-Lanterns, but when the tradition was taken over to America pumpkins were used because they were easier to hollow out than the neep!!!! And that is the origin of the pumpkin lantern. It is interesting to note that vintage American Halloweeen cards actually depict Scottish symbols such as the thistle and tartan, and Scottish poetry. Have a safe and happy Halloween!
This story was written by Susan Campbell and published with kind permission from the Ileach