All Hallow’s Eve, A Celtic Tradition

Did the Fleming families, who settled near Kilsyth, Derby Township, in the mid-1800s, partake in the Scottish tradition of All Hallow’s Eve?  Hard to know.  There is no mention of Halloween in family papers. As Disciples of Christ, they would have disapproved of pagan practices of ghouls and ghosts and the connection to the occult. But they may have retained something of the “All Saints” day on November 1 to remember the departed faithful.

Modern day, inflated plastic pumpkin - lawn ornament. 2021
Inflated plastic, artificially lit pumpkin 2021

We may think of Halloween as a North American excuse for spooky lawn decorations, jack o’lantern competitions, and costume dress-up for children going from door to door to get candy.  But Halloween has been much more, with traditions of bonfires and spirits more frightening than the inflated, lit, plastic ghosts we see today.

Halloween has its origins in Samhain (pronounced SAH-wane), a Celtic festival at the end of October when the spirit world became visible. The celebration marked the end of harvest and the beginning of winter and was an occasion to commune with the Otherworld – when spirits and faeries and the souls of the dead mixed with the living. Big bonfires kept people safe from the visiting evil spirits. Lanterns were fashioned by hollowing out turnips, carving scary features, and placing a lit candle inside to cast light and safety.  Children, to hide from the spirits, would go “guising” in costumes undercover as the malicious ones. Adults might do the same.  A song or a trick or just knocking on a neighbour’s door might earn them a treat.  For a game, they might bob for apples. (1,2,3)

Robert Burns recognized Halloween in his poem of that name in 1785. The first verse (in English translation) caught the night’s excitement of moonlight and movement.

Upon that night, when fairies light On Cassilis Downans dance, Or over the lays, in splendid blaze, On sprightly horses prance; Or for Colean the route is taken, Beneath the moon’s pale beams; There, up the cove, to stray and rove, Among the rocks and streams To sport that night. (4)

The Catholic Church designated November 1 as “All Saints Day” to remember saints and martyrs, a day which the Disciples adopted to celebrate the departed faithful. (5)

 Scottish and Irish immigrants brought Halloween, its practices and superstitions, to Canada and the United States in the mid-1800s. (5) There may have been bonfires and parties in settlements like Kilsyth and Owen Sound, and probably some “guising” and bobbing for apples. There was certainly mischief as this report from Maxwell, southeast of Kilsyth, in the Markdale Standard (12 November 1885) shows:

Halloween passed off rather quiet, no damage being done by the boys as usual, but gates, ploughs, and even the great boot walked off a short distance …. (6)

A bonfire that Bella (Finch) Herald remembered from her childhood in the 1850s on her grandfather Alexander Fleming’s farm at Kilsyth may not have happened on Hallow’s Eve but had some of the same eerie qualities:

It was night, the sky was alive with twinkling stars, the black woods were lit up with flames from a great burning log heap in the fallow. I was perched on my father’s shoulder. I can see Grandfather’s head covered with a tam-o-shanter, Grandmother’s pretty face framed in a white -frilled cap, my young mother clad in a wine-colored dress. There was another young woman clad in grey , which must have been Aunt Jessie. Then there were uncles galore – all lit up by the great fire. On the opposite side from the fire there were myriads of fireflies picked out against the black woods. I suppose I must have asked a question, for I distinctly remember one of those terrible uncles saying, “They were lightning bugs looking for bad little girls, with lanterns, they eat little girls.” My Father hugged me close and said “Then my little girl is safe for she is a good girl.” — Fleming Family Papers. Bella was the eldest daughter of Abraham and Isobel (Fleming) Finch.

As you light your pumpkin lantern this Halloween and fashion a ghost from a sheet, think on the Celts who began these practices centuries ago to deter evil spirits.

References

  1. Samhain, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samhain
  2. ‘Strange Customs’ – Exploring the Ancient Origins and Traditions of Halloween” Oct 22 2021, British Newspaper Archive   https://blog.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/2021/10/22/origins-and-traditions-of-halloween/
  3. 6 Scottish Halloween traditions, National Trust for Scotland, https://www.nts.org.uk/stories/6-scottish-halloween-traditions
  4. “Halloween” by Robert Burns (English Translation)  https://sdhighlandgames.org/halloween-by-robert-burns-english-translation/
  5. Halloween in Canada, The Canadian Encyclopedia  https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/halloween
  6. Markdale Standard (Markdale, Ont.1880), 12 Nov 1885, p. 4 https://news.ourontario.ca/ghpl/121120/page/5?q=halloween&docid=OOI.121120
  7. “Remembering the saints,” Christian Church Foundation (25 September 2018) https://disciples.org/general-ministries/remembering-the-saints/

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