Samhain (pronounced Sah-win) is the Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. Traditionally, it is celebrated from 31 October to 1 November, and is the where we get our modern Halloween traditions from.
In Moray, boys asked for fuel from each house in the village, in order to light a bonfire. These fires were deemed to have protective and cleansing powers.
Once the fire was lit, “one after another of the youths laid himself down on the ground as near to the fire as possible so as not to be burned, and in such a position as to let the smoke roll over him. The others ran through the smoke and jumped over him”. When the bonfire burnt down, they scattered the ashes, vying with each other who should scatter them most.
Sometimes, two bonfires would be built side by side, and the people – sometimes with their livestock – would walk between them as a cleansing ritual. The bones of slaughtered cattle were said to have been cast upon bonfires. In the pre-Christian Gaelic world, cattle were the main form of wealth and were the centre of agricultural and pastoral life.
The souls of the dead were thought to revisit homes seeking hospitality. Feasts were had, at which the souls of dead kin were beckoned to attend and a place set at the table for them.
One of the most common games was apple bobbing, apples were strongly associated with the Otherworld in Celtic mythology . Another involved hanging a small wooden rod from the ceiling at head height, with a lit candle on one end and an apple hanging from the other. The rod was spun round and everyone took turns to try to catch the apple with their teeth.
Apples were peeled in one long strip, the peel tossed over the shoulder, and its shape was said to form the first letter of the future spouse’s name.
Trick or Treat
Playing pranks at Samhain is recorded in the Scottish Highlands as far back as 1736 and was also common in Ireland, which led to Samhain being nicknamed “Mischief Night” in some parts.
As part of the festival people would go door-to-door in costume, often reciting verses in exchange for food. This custom of wearing costumes at Halloween spread to England in the 20th century.
Jack o’ lanterns
Traditionally it was turnips or mangelwurzels which were hollowed out to act as lanterns and often carved with grotesque faces. They were also set on windowsills by those who made them, and were said to represent the spirits or supernatural beings and were used to ward off evil spirits. These were common in parts of Ireland and the Scotland into the 20th century.