It may come as a surprise to learn that the customs and traditions that we associate with Halloween have their roots deeply embedded in Celtic culture. The early Celts had only two seasons Spring, or Beltane as it was called, beginning at dawn on the 1st of May and Winter, or Samhain (sow-ain) .
Samhain, also known in Scots Gaelic as Oidhche Shamhna, or End of Summer Festival, was celebrated in the dark on the 31st of October. The Celts would build bonfires in hopes that they would please the sun and it would once again return at Beltane as well as rid their lands of evil spirits. Oidhche Shamhna, or Samhain as it is now known, was also the end of the Celtic year.
This was believed to be a time when the veil between the seen and unseen world was at its thinnest and the past and present merged. Doors and windows were left unlocked so that the spirits of the dead who had crossed over from the otherworld could come and enjoy the festivities or warm themselves at their former hearth. Food and drink were put out on the doorsteps for ghost during the remembrance feast and the living were forbidden to touch it. Although, representatives of the “silent community”, which comprised of the poor and needy, would walk door-to-door, chanting a rhyme such as the traditional Celtic “Soul Cakers Song”, which goes as following:
“Soul, Soul for a Souling Cake; I pray, good missus, a Souling Cake; Apple or pear, a plum or a cherry; Any good thing to make us all merry.”
They often received flat, round buns of oat flour, called Dirge Loaves. If you complied with the ritual you were honored with good fortune in the New Year, if you did not you often awoke to find that that a nasty trick had been played upon you or that your garden had been destroyed.
The Celts could not predict who would come to their home on Oidhche Shamhna, so they would disguise themselves to trick malevolent ghosties, bogles, and kelpies. They would also ware protective charms to aid them in their trickery.
In the Eighth century Pope Gregory III intentionally united the Christian All Saints’ Day to the Celtic Oidhche Shamhna. Where previous Popes had tried to stamp out the Celtic traditions Pope Gregory III found a way to incorporate them into the Christian holiday. Although some traditions fell by the wayside, the major of the customs survived and have transformed into the ones we see and practice this very day.
The tradition of begging for Soul Cakes became away to remember lost ancestors and each one that was ate by the poor now represented a soul freed from Purgatory. Today it has molded into the sugar-filled tradition called beggars night or trick-or-treat.
Disguising still took place although they were no longer to hide from the evil spirits they became a way to honor Saints, as I sit and write this a multitude of costumed children parade down the street practicing this time-honored tradition. Bonfires are still lit although they are no longer used to summons the return of spring, they now are use to roast marshmallows, welcome cold weary travelers and remind us of the season.
While Ireland and Scotland kept with these traditions, England tended to shy away from them. During the Regency period, the customs of All Hallows Eve were mainly kept to the country folk if practiced at all.
The American Almanacs did not include Halloween as a holiday until the early 19th century. The transatlantic migration of nearly 2 million Irish following the Irish Potato Famine (1845-1849) finally brought the tradition to the United States. Scottish traditions trickled down from Canada.
Here are a few more examples of the customs that have Celtic roots that would have been used in Regency Scotland and parts of rural England.
In Scottish tradition, pumpkin carving can be traced back to the time of Druids who’d gather at Carlinwark to sacrifice their enemies. They would then carve neeps, or turnips as we call them, and place a lit candle inside to chase away the powers of darkness.
On All Hallows Eve, Irish children would carve out turnips, potatoes, beets, or gourds, and place a light in them to ward off evil spirits and keep Stingy Jack at bay. These were called Jack’s Lantern- the original Jack O’Lantern.
Who was Stingy Jack?
Irish legend tells the tale of Stingy Jack, a miserly drunkard, banned from heaven and barred from hell due to a nasty trick he played upon the devil. Condemned to wander the earth for eternity, Jack snatched a coal from hell and thrust it into a turnip to light his solitary way.
When the Irish and Scottish immigrants came to America, they discovered that the American pumpkin was easier to carve.
Dunking for apples was also a custom that came from Auld Scotland. They old wives would say that if you captured an apple between your teeth on Hallowmas Eve you would have the power to see the days to come.
Nut Crack Night—one of the known Regency customs—was when you would throw two hazelnuts into the fire, one named for you and the other named for the one your heart desires. You would then say the rhyme, “If you hate me spite and fly. If you love me burn awa.” If the nuts burned side-by-side, he was the one for you. If the nuts fly apart, you two were meant to be apart.
Until We Meet Again,