26 Oct 2016

"Samhain" - The Strange History of Halloween

The Halloween season is upon us.

If you're anything like me, you'll be thinking to yourself, "Is it that time of year again?"  Whenever holidays come around, I begin to muse on years past and the cyclical nature of our lives.   At this point I normally wonder - how on earth did we get to ghost lollipops and plastic pumpkins?  What were the seeds that this weird tradition sprang from generations ago?

Let's reminisce - beyond our own lives, and back into the now unrecognizable world of our forefathers, where mysticism and danger are the fabric of society.  On the day between the equinox and the solstice thirty generations ago, our families are not buying Haribo multipacks and waxy facepaint, but droving down their herds from the hills to save them from the terrifying frosts that would soon be leaching into the icy ground.  The shortening days cannot be stayed by warm electric lights and centrally-heated homes.  Their whole world is beginning to become as cold and dark as the grave.

It makes me shiver just to think of it.

Stay away from the sidhe mound...
Small wonder then, that the original Samhain celebrations are so frightening.  Apparently, the Halloween we recognise came from the Gaelic tradition in the 10th Century as far as anyone can guess, since this was part of a spoken tradition and was not written down until the Christians began recording Irish history in Middle Ages.  The last harvests had been gathered, and so this was essentially a festival of death, when the veil between the physical world and the "Otherworld" became permeable.  The great mounds in the land, the "sídhe", opened up and allowed the spirits, or Aos Sí, to come into forth.

In order not to anger this strange host, animal sacrifices would be made by the community, as well as great ceremonial bonfires.  Traditions varied throughout the British Isles.  In Ochtertyre, in Scotland, a ring of stones was laid round a huge bonfire which the locals would run around with flaming torches. The next day the stones were examined -  if your stone was missing, you were not to survive the coming year.  Over in Ireland, animals would be slaughtered and eaten in a great feast, and blood would be sprinkled on the doorsteps of all the houses.

Don't mangel your wurzel
Back when Samhain was observed, so feared were the Aos Sí that people donned costumes to try and hide themselves, going from home-to-home collecting offerings for them in an attempt to keep their mischief at bay.  Sound familiar?  The beloved pumpkin-carving is also a direct correlation from the original jack-o-lanterns people would place in their windows to frighten away the spirits of the night, although they would have more likely been made from turnips or - delightfully - "mangelwurzels".

Apple-bobbing has been popular since the Roman invasion of Britain.  Often fortune-telling would play a part.  An apple would be peeled in one go, and the skin was thrown over one shoulder to reveal the first letter of your future beloved's name.  Perhaps you recognize a similar game from your own childhood, but I bet you never guessed its roots were so very ancient.

Fast-forward to the 20th Century, and there was somewhat of a Halloween revival going on.   Ever nostalgic and terrified of the changing world around them, the Victorians were always looking backwards to a simpler time.  Many of our most beloved traditions are due to their resurrecting and reclaiming of ancient customs.  Queen Victoria certainly got into the spirit, judging from this account of the Halloween celebrations at Balmoral Castle.  Can you imagine our dear old Queenie going along with this?  I don't think so somehow:

“Her Majesty and the Princess Beatrice, each bearing a large torch, drove out in an open phaeton.  A procession, formed of the tenants and servants on the estates, followed.  All carried high torches, lighted.  They walked through the grounds and round the castle, and the scene as the procession moved onwards was very weird and striking.

When the flames were at their brightest a figure dressed as a hobgoblin appeared on the scene, drawing a car surrounded by a number of fairies carrying long spears, the car containing the effigy of a witch.  A circle having been formed by the torchbearers, the presiding elf tossed the figure of the witch into the fire, where it was speedily consumed.  This act of cremation over, reels began, and were danced with great vigour to the stirring strains of Willie Ross, her Majesty’s piper.”

Back when Halloween costumes were pretty convincing

Feeling enchanted yet?  Or is your weekend not quite on a par with our centuries previous?  Fear not - there is something which has always gone hand-in-hand with the last harvesting of grain: Alcohol.  So as you browse the aisles for fake cobwebs and lager, know that your Halloween celebrations are likely to be entirely traditional in one respect at least.   I leave you with the opening of Robert Burns' poem, "Halloween", a wonderfully rambling account of drunken revelries on Halloween night.  May your night be at least half as mad and magical as our ancestors before us:

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.…

With merry songs, and friendly tales,
I know they didn’t weary;
And many tales, and funny jokes,
Their sports were cheap and cheery;
Till buttered scones, with fragrant steam,
Set all their mouths a’stirring;
Then, with a social glass of liquor,
They parted off careering
Full happy that night.

A Victorian Halloween card.  Well, then... Okay.

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