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The Surprisingly Celtic Origins of Halloween

When you think of Halloween, you might think of Americanised celebrations: trick or treating, pumpkins with big jaggy smiles and kids dressed up as the princess from this year’s biggest animated film. You might be surprised to hear then – like we were – that Halloween actually has Scottish roots!

Of course, we’re not the only culture to have days celebrating the dead or trying to ward off evil spirits – lots of cultures all around the world have different festivals and celebrations for this purpose – but Halloween as we know it today evolved from a Celtic festival.

The Celtic pagan festival of Samhain celebrated the end of harvest and the beginning of winter. Later, the church announced the celebrations of saints on November the 1st (All Saints Day) and the two festivals merged over time. In 1785, Robert Burns wrote a poem called ‘Halloween’ and in doing so, named this festival we all love so much now.

The Origin of Guising

The Celts believed that the barrier between the living and the dead was blurred during Samhain and so developed a number of practices to accommodate spooky things - dead ancestors, fairies, ghouls, that sort of thing – and many of them look familiar to us today! For example, children used to dress themselves up as ghouls so that they could move around undetected by any spooky spirits who might want to steal them away. In Scotland and Ireland, guising is born! Disguised children began to go from door to door performing tricks in exchange for fruit, nuts or coins. Here lies the difference between Celtic and other traditions – the ‘trick’ in trick-or-treating refers to the act of playing a trick on anyone who doesn’t offer a ‘treat’ when you show up at their door, rather than the trick performed by children.

The Origin of Carved Pumpkins

The jack-o-lantern derives from our Celtic neighbours; Irish folklore tells of Stingy Jack. As tends to be the case with folklore, there are many versions of a similar story but the gist of it is that a fellow by the name of Jack, in his tightfistedness, managed to convince the Devil to turn himself into a coin to pay a bartender for a drink at the pub. Jack then quickly nabbed the coin and took off into the night, leaving the Devil trapped in his pocket. Later, they arranged that the Devil could be set free should he agree that should Jack die in the next 10 years, he wouldn’t be taken to hell. Sure enough, Jack died and was not taken by the Devil, but God wouldn’t take him either given his terrible behaviour. He was sent back to Earth to wander aimlessly for eternity with only an ember from the fires of Hell to light his way which he stored in a hollowed-out turnip. Tah-dah! The Irish and the Scots carved menacing faces into hollowed neeps and tatties and displayed them in their windows and doorways to keep Stingy Jack at bay on Halloween. This tradition emigrated with its people over to America where it was discovered that pumpkins, alongside being conveniently in season around the end of October, are far easier to hollow out and carve and eventually word got back around to us in Scotland and Ireland. If you’re looking for a more traditional celebration this year (or are trying to avoid the ludicrous prices of pumpkins), why not carve a neep instead? It’ll be a fairly serious upper-body workout trying to get your knife through it, but you must admit that the final result is very spooky!

Celtic Fortune Telling Games

Oddly enough, the Scots also saw Halloween as a great time to predict their futures – often romantically. The fuarag (a Gaelic word pronounced foo-ar-ak) was a bowl of raw oatmeal mixed with cream and sugar containing a few objects which would tell their finder their fortune. Participants would don a blindfold and take a scoop with a spoon. Finding a coin meant you would come into some money. Finding a ring would suggest an upcoming marriage; a button meant you would be a bachelor; a thimble meant you would be a spinster.

Stalk pulling was another popular method of marriage prediction. Young people would head out into the garden – blindfolded again – and pull a stalk from the veggie patch, usually kale or cabbage. The length and width of the stalk would tell you of your future partner’s stature and the flavour would indicate their personality type eg sweet or bitter. The amount of soil that clung to the root would represent money. A lot of soil would predict a large dowry or a wealthy partner – lucky you!

If you already had a partner in mind, nut burning might’ve been more up your street. Nut burning entailed assigning a potential suitor to a nut and throwing it in the fire. If the nut hissed and jumped around, the relationship would be tempestuous. If it lay calmly, the relationship would be successful. These are not the most scientific methods to base huge life decisions on, but they do sound like fun.

So, if you’re celebrating Halloween this weekend, why not try out some of these old Celtic traditions? You may not find out any reliable information about your future, but at a time when kids can be a bit nuts about sweeties, it might at least be a good way to sneak some veggies in!

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