Ryan Hay explores the Gaelic roots of our much-loved Hallowe’en traditions.



Creative Commons License by Bill Barber


“The trees are in their Autumn beauty,/The woodland paths are dry,/Under the October twilight the water/ Mirrors a still sky” and the time comes when the dull, damp scent of singeing pumpkins turns our thoughts towards Hallowe’en. Like most students, I look forward to Hallowe’en as a time of elaborate budget-induced creativity and a welcome opportunity for less-than-sober revelry. Here in St Andrews, however, the anticipation is tangible, and our festivities are set apart from those of other UK universities thanks to our large American contingent: Hallowe’en is an integral part of the US social calendar, and we in the Bubble hugely benefit from this proclivity for fancy dress and tradition.

It is in this tradition that we find a strange dichotomy: how can it be that our celebrations are so hugely improved by our US population when the origins of Hallowe’en itself and the majority of its accompanying traditions are Gaelic? It is time for us all to understand the occult origin of our festivities, I think, when we celebrate this October, in order to better appreciate the very real magic of this special time of year and to avoid it being reduced to the gaudy commercialism of a certain saint’s day in mid-February.


Hallowe’en (note my use of the apostrophe) is a contraction of All Hallow’s Eve, which marks the start of the time in the Christian calendar when the dead, mainly saints and martyrs, are honoured. This tradition is thought to derive from the more exciting Gaelic tradition of honouring dead relatives at Samhain bonfires, when the spirits (Aos Sí) were thought to more easily crossover into our world from their own, and offerings of food were left for dead relatives whose spirits were believed to return to their homes for this festival.


One of our favourite surviving Hallowe’en traditions is, of course, dressing up. Trick-or-treating, guising, or mumming (or whatever it may be called in your hometown) as we know it today originated as ‘souling’: poor families going from door to door singing and praying for the dead in exchange for food (no 12-year old gluttony for Haribo to be seen, strangely). The costumes themselves seem to have evolved from mimicry of the Gaelic Aos Sí; dressing up as spirits makes them feel more at home, and will encourage them to help livestock survive the winter. Although quite how the latest lycra ‘sexy policewoman’ costume serves that purpose is beyond me.


Before the time of such party-oriented delights as the “zombie-flavoured alcoholic shooters” I received in the post from my mum this week (along with some charming light-up spiders), there came a far more pious tradition. Catholics abstained from meat-eating on All Hallows (a term which like ‘St Andrews’, predates the possessive apostrophe), but feasts were given with places set for dead relatives in the Samhain tradition. Traditions that have evolved into some of our favourite party games came from this Pagan celebration too, like the classic bobbing/dunking/dookin’ for apples. Celts noticed that the apples (fertility symbols of the goddess Pomona) brought by the Romans formed the sacred Pentagram when sliced in half, and so young unmarried people began the practice of apple-bobbing. The first to catch an apple would be the next to marry. Why, then, does my 72-year-old Granny always win?

Scottish readers will be interested to know that the internet yields no results on the origin of the ‘biting-at-a-jam-doughnut-on-a-string’ game. Do please ask your favourite granny about her theory of its origin.



Creative Commons License by Brian Wilson

Jack O’Lanterns:

This staple of the US pumpkin patch festivities comes from Scottish ‘soulers’, who used to carry candles in hollowed-out turnips. This became the less-than-terrifying orange faces we now know and love. How anybody ever hollowed out a turnip without losing their minds is a mystery anyway.

So while Target, Wal-Mart, and Hallmark may provide us with the necessary tools and excitement for a great party – and the joys of pumpkin patches and pies are endlessly increased by living in a country that can grown their main ingredient in reasonable quantities – let’s not forget the Gaelic origins of Hallowe’en. Scotland’s history is imbued with legend, and this is the perfect reason to throw a phenomenal party this weekend. In this spirit of Gaelic Hallowe’en, then, let’s take instruction from the final stanza of Ayrshire bard Robert Burns’ poem Hallow’een:

“Wi’ merry sangs, an’ friendly cracks,
I wat they did na weary;
And unco tales, an’ funnie jokes—
Their sports were cheap an’ cheery:
Till butter’d sowens, wi’ fragrant lunt,
Set a’ their gabs a-steerin;
Syne, wi’ a social glass o’ strunt,
They parted aff careerin
Fu’ blythe that night.”


Ryan Hay



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