Halloween is one of the oldest CELTIC holidays (the festival of Samhain, original spelling Samuin, meaning end of the summer or light) in the Western European tradition. It is sometimes regarded as the “Celtic New Year”. The ancient Celts believed that the border between life and death became thin on Samhain, allowing spirits, ghosts, faeries, and goblins (both good and bad) to pass through. The family’s ancestors were honoured and invited home (with food and wine at the doorstep) while harmful spirits were warded off by the wearing of costumes and masks. Their purpose was to disguise oneself as a harmful spirit and thus avoid harm. In Scotland the spirits were impersonated by young men dressed in white with masked, veiled or blackened faces. Halloween is not celebrated in all countries and regions of the world. But we are getting into the Celtic Spirit, leading up to our Celtic Evening 30 November!
Samhain was also a time to take stock of food supplies and slaughter livestock for winter stores. Bonfires played a large part in the festivities. All other fires were doused and each home lit their hearth from the bonfire. Sometimes two bonfires would be built side-by-side, and people and their livestock would walk between them as a cleansing ritual. Black and orange are the traditional Halloween colors and represent the darkness of night and the color of bonfires, autumn leaves, and jack-o’-lanterns.
The souling practice of commemorating the souls purgatory with candle lanterns carved from Rutabaga/ turnips, became adapted into the making of jack-o’-lanterns. In traditional Celtic Halloween festivals, large turnips were hollowed out, carved with faces, and placed in windows to ward off evil spirits. In North America pumpkins are carved they are both available at harvest time and much larger, easier to carve. Many families carve frightening or comical faces.
The name ‘Halloween’ and many of its present-day traditions have been expanded on from the British traditions with contemporary North American (USA and Canada) ingenuity. The word Halloween is first attested in the 16th century and represents a Scottish variant of the fuller All-Hallows-Even (“evening”), that is, the night before All Saints/All Hallows Day (November 1st). Up through the early 20th century, the spelling “Hallowe’en” was frequently used, deleting the “v” and shortening the word.
American historian Ruth Edna Kelley wrote the first history in the US; The Book of Hallowe’en (1919), and references souling in the chapter Hallowe’en in America; “The taste in Hallowe’en festivities now is to study old traditions, and hold a Scotch party, using Robert Burns poem Hallowe’en as a guide; or to go a-souling as the English used.”
Imagery of Halloween is derived from many sources, including national customs, works of Gothic and horror literature (such as Frankenstein or Dracula), and classic horror films (such as Frankenstein (1931 film) and The Mummy (1932 film), and local harvests (corn husks, pumpkins, scarecrows, straw, etc.)
Trick-or-treating is part of the celebration for children. Children go in costume from house to house, asking for treats (mostly candy but sometimes money, often for UNICEF), with the question, “Trick or treat?” The word “trick” refers to a (mostly idle) “threat” to perform mischief on the homeowners or their property if no treat is given. In some parts of Scotland children still go guising (this is normally on Guy Fawkes Night 5 November). In this custom the child performs some sort of trick, i.e. sings a song or tells a ghost story, to earn their treats.
Halloween costumes are traditionally modeled after monsters such as ghosts, skeletons, witches, and devils. Over time, the costume selection extended to include popular characters from fiction, celebrities, and generic archetypes such as ninjas and princesses. Costuming became popular for US Halloween parties in the early 20th century, as often for adults as for children. The first mass-produced Halloween costumes appeared in stores in the 1930s. Costumes are traditionally imitate monsters such as vampires, ghosts, witches, and devils, or in more recent years such science fiction-inspired characters as aliens and superheroes. There are also costumes of pop culture figures like presidents, athletes, celebrities, or media characters. Ghost stories and horror films are common fixtures at Halloween parties. Halloween-themed television series and specials are commonly aired at the end of October; new horror films are often released theatrically to take advantage of the Halloween atmosphere.
Some games traditionally played at Halloween are forms of divination. A traditional Scottish form of divining one’s future spouse is to carve an apple in one long strip, then toss the peel over one’s shoulder. The peel will land in the shape of the first letter of the future spouse’s name (I always wondered if it was first or last name). You would also twist the core of an apple a, b c, d, e, f, etc, revealing the letter of the future spouse’s name. Unmarried women sat in a darkened room, gazed into a mirror on Halloween night, hoping to see the face of their future husband. Viewing was not without risk; if they were destined to die before marriage, a skull would appear.
Halloween also coincides with the apple harvest. At one time, candy or caramel apples were commonly given to children, but the practice rapidly waned in the 1970s. One custom that persists in modern-day Ireland is the baking (or more often nowadays, the purchase) of barmbrack, a light fruitcake, into which a plain ring, a coin and other charms are placed before baking. The person who receives the ring will find their true love in the ensuing year, similar to the traditional king cake at the festival of Epiphany.