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.

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Searching For My Roots – poem by Leora Wilson

Pottawatomi River, Derby Township – George Harlow White 1874 – Courtesy of Toronto Public Library

I often think of days gone by when this land was just beginning,
And what the settlers faced each day to eke out a meager living.
They traveled here by horse and cart, no roads then would they find.
Their salvaged treasures packed in trunks, from the life they had left behind.
Did they bring a few chickens and maybe a cow from the nearest settled town?
What about their flour and other supplies? No store then could be found.
The untamed miles of wooded land would face them as they stood
And pondered how they’d ever live and where they’d find their food.
The forest towered above them, but they needed to clear the land
So they could build their homes of massive logs, and do it all by hand.
Their tools would be inadequate, a crosscut saw perhaps?
They’d need both feed and fur so they’d require hunting traps.
Fortunate were those with pristine water close at hand
Else they’d dig a well with pick and shovel and pray that they’d strike sand.
They learned to cook on a fireplace hearth to keep their family fed.
Supplies were meager for winter’s long sojourn, so it is said.
The prolonged winter would bring the snow that never seemed to end,
And winter’s blast left icy frost on the walls they needed to mend.
Their days were filled with menial tasks, fetching water and chopping wood,
Feeding the hungry fire, their only resource for heat and food.
Milking and baking and washing the floor, scrubbing the laundry clean,
Evenings brought mending and darning chores by the light of a candle’s gleam
They were to endure many weary days and endless lonely nights.
Life was fragile for the weak, confronting anguish and many plights.
The family increased nearly every year, a fact of life those days,
But they raised the children that survived and were happy in so many ways.
I think of all these things while I am searching for my roots,
And I’m proud to know that on this family tree, I’m one of its many shoots.

Submitted by Leora Wilson, great great granddaughter of Joseph Garvie and Janet Fleming.

Note added by Gwen Harris: Janet was a sister of Alexander Fleming. The Garvie and Fleming families settled in Derby Township, Grey County in the 1850s. Leora wrote this poem for a book titled Highland Legacy that Lynne Porter and she wrote about their MacKenzie-Cameron ancestors in Keppel Township, Grey County. Leora has kindly posted it to this Fleming blog.