We have recently returned from a folklore collecting ‘holiday’ in the northern isles of Orkney & Shetland. These very wild and wonderful places leached the stories, superstitions and traditions in landscapes that had been inhabited by Picts, Nordic and Scottish peoples resulting in an often unique and wonderful folklore.
As we are approaching Hallowe’en we noticed how much more emphasis was placed on this tradition than in our home county of Shropshire in England. We all know that this tradition has become more commercialised and our current celebration has been very much influenced by America through popular culture. But here on these outlying islands, where daylight is in short supply and it is acknowledged that winter begins with the coming of October, we could really see how fear of an unknown lurking in the darkness of the land or within the turbulent waves or down the thin dark passageways in old towns could give rise to superstitions, traditions and customs that mark this time of the year.
Every shop window in the little towns and communities were lit up, adorned in decorations. Community buildings and schools were also decorated and there was a wonderful feeling of living folklore taking place as people chatted about Hallowe’en and what they were doing to mark it.
The name Hallowe’en comes from a Scottish shortening of All-Hallows Eve which was the Eve of All Saints’ Day celebrated by the Christian church on November 1st and has its roots in the Gaelic festival of Samhain.
Neeps (turnips) we’re hollowed out to hold candles, thought originally to be put in windows to guide people to the safety of home, but at some point this changed to more creative ghoulish faces being carved into them in an attempt to ward off evil. We now commonly use pumpkins, a type of squash, ‘exported’ from America that is easier to hollow and carve. The tradition of marking this nightwas most likely exported to America through migrants from Scotland and Ireland who adapted their folk customs to suit their new home.
Guising (disguising) was part of the tradition as Scottish children wandered the streets in costumes that were intended to make them pass as actual spirits and so remain unharmed by them. Tricks or songs were performed and gifts given in gratitude for warding off evil. Costumes were made from all sorts of things. Skeklers wore strange costumes made of straw and went round dancing, singing and making a din. This pre-cursor to trick-or-treating was often performed as a service to communities in an attempt to drive away evil that may be threatening. (I’m sure an entertainment value also became part of it to)
It was an important time for divination. Robert Burne’s poem Halloween tells of people pulling kale stalks from the ground after dark with their eyes closed. The length and shape of the stalk was said to represent your future lover’s height and figure, and the amount of soil around the roots represented their wealth.
Another Hallowe’en tradition involved young couples putting a nut in a fire. If the nuts burned quietly, the union would be a happy one. However, if they hissed and crackled, a turbulent future lay ahead.
Games were played such as Apple ‘Dookin’ which was where apples were floated in water and the person had to use only their teeth/mouth to retrieve and apple and also Treacle Scones- which was where scones were hung from rafters at mouth level of players and smothered in treacle. The idea was to retrieve the scone, again only using the mouth.
As we returned from our trip we arrived for an overnight stay at the border town of Berwick-Upon-Tweed and again found a real visual community celebration in its shops and even inside an Italian restaurant we frequented.
We find it interesting that Hallowe’en is a Folk custom that has survived and even flourished in its ‘updated’ version, worldwide, when others have become lost and almost forgotten. Yuletide being the other great survivor with bonfire night, Valentine’s Day, Mayday, Easter and harvest festivals being survivors, even if to a lesser degree. So why do we hold on to this particular tradition ? Yes commercial gain has played its part but there has to be a will, consumers, who enable its existence and growth.
We have Gaelic and Celtic cultures, at the end of their farming year, to thank for the origins marking this time of the year- originally as Samhain, the beginning of winter and a time of marking darkness and connection with the spirit realms. Followed by the influence of Christianity that created the ‘Hallowed’ nature relating to honouring the Saints on November 1st and then the day after the Souls (All Souls day- November 2nd) of ordinary people. There can be no coincidence that the church recognised the need to continue the past practices and tradition of communities to come together at this time of the year. Death, endings, ancestors are very much connected to the dark winter months. But if we take a lead from our ancestors Samhain also marked beginnings, it was thought of as the beginning of the year and was the beginnings of customs that went on to become part of our New Year celebrations on December 31st/ January 1st.
If we too think of this time not only as endings but as beginnings it offers us hope, time to imagine and plan, something to celebrate and mark. We all need a bit of light as the darker months begin and it feels especially so this year. So do have some fun this Hallowe’en- try some of the traditional games, be outside with nature even if only for a short time to collect seasonal natural objects such as leaves, acorn cups, seed heads to decorate your home. Light fires or candles or fairy lights and bring the light into your lives. Tell ghost stories and acknowledge our ‘enjoyment’ of a little bit of controlled ‘fear’ that we all feel sometimes. And remember this wonderful folklore time of the year has its origins in those who have gone before us, wether it be those from the Northern Islands we visited or closer to home, let’s acknowledge and remember our family ancestors by setting a place for them in a seasonal celebration meal.
As for us we will be having a wonderful earthy mushroom and sage soup with a bannock and an apple pie made from our orchards apples, washed down with a seasonal mulled cider. Whatever is on you menu we hope your celebration of Hallowe’en is suitably chilling and warm - all at the same time x