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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