Sunday, 30 October 2016

The Celtic Origins of Halloween - a look at Oidhche Shamhna

(source: pinterest)

October draws to a close and with that we firmly enter into the cold season. As a fantasy writer I find autumn and the early days of winter particularly enchanting. Mist hanging in the fields and curling around trees, leaves swirling in the breeze, grass covered in frost, and our own breath lingering in a white cloud in front of us. There is something mythical about autumn and as a former Gaelic student it is the Celtic tradition and belief system that most often inspires me.  As befits the season, I want to share some insights into Halloween or Oidhche Shamhna, as it is known in Gaelic, and the Celtic Otherworld.

Samhain, the Gaelic name for Halloween, marked the end of harvest and the beginning of winter. From sundown on 31st October to sundown of 1st November it was believed that the boundaries between our world and the Otherworld overlapped, allowing spirits and fairies to walk freely among us. People wore disguises to walk among the spirits undetected. The disguises were not as elaborate as today's costumes and usually consisted of old clothes and ash blackened faces. Dressed up like that, children would walk from house to house, but instead of yelling "trick or treat", they recited poetry or songs in exchange for food.

Having grown up in a country that did not really celebrate Halloween until long after I moved to Scotland, I don't know just how "wild" a typical Halloween night is other than from what I have seen in movies and TV. For the most part it looks very tame - unless we're talking about horror movies. Then it's likely you won't survive the night. In Scotland, pranksters could go crazy on Halloween. Disguised as one of the fairies or spirits of the Otherworld, they played havoc on their neighbours. And got away with it! After all, the fairies and spirits did the same and it was safer to placate those souls than make them angry.

Other Halloween traditions, such as the carving of pumpkins, also find their roots in Scotland, though traditionally, it was the neeps, or turnips, that were carved and made into lanterns. These lanterns were either carried by the guisers or set in window sills to ward off evil spirits.

Fire, in general, was seen as protection. Huge bonfires were lit in communities to ward against evil and, depending on the location, people walked themselves and their cattle through it for protection. The ashes could then be smeared onto the cheeks, if the smoke had not blackened them already, and act as the mask of your disguise before you travelled from house to house.

Of course, the customs varied greatly from location to location, and there are many more that I left out, but these are some key traditions to give you an idea of how Halloween used to be celebrated in Scotland.


  1. I had a friend who'd grown up in Yorkshire in the 50s. He told me about Mischief Night, and one particularly horrendouos practical joke he and his young tearaway friends would play on unpopular neighbours, involving a dog-turd smeared drawing-pin stuck point-up to the gate latch. Ponder for a moment, if you will... Yep. Exactly. Ugh!
    I also have memories of looking down from Whitby Abbey on Guy Fawkes' Night, on streets far below lit by bonfires surrounded by leaping, devilish silhouettes. I think perhaps our North has held our wildness better than our South.

    1. Thanks for the comment!
      I must say that practical joke sounds horrible.

      To be honest, I'm not sure how common the traditons are today. Certainly in Edinburgh I haven't even had any of the "modern" trick or treaters at the door.

      That's interesting about Guy Fawkes' Night. I only know it as the Gunpowder Plot celebration, but I guess the fact that it is celebrated so soon after Halloween could have meant that the traditions kind of blended into one another. You did the guising on Halloween and, since you had a bonfire so soon after, you used that as your protection for the next year rather than light two in such quick succession. After all, you had to get the timber and whatever else you were using as well.