Written by Jen Groundwater; copy edited by Lydia du Bois
In his lengthy poem “Halloween,” the beloved Scottish poet Robert Burns popularized the titular holiday name, describing what eighteenth-century Scots got up to on October 31:
Some merry, friendly, countra folks,
Together did convene,
To burn their nits, an’ pou their stocks,*
An’ haud their Halloween**
Fu’ blythe that night.***
The poem goes on to describe numerous rites to be performed on Halloween night, mainly to foretell who your future husband or wife will be (or if you will ever marry) and how your relationship will turn out. The evening ends with everyone having sowans, a traditional Scottish oat dish, washed down with strunt, a Scottish tipple.
There’s not a single mention of mini chocolate bars, trick-or-treating, or inflatable lawn decorations.
What would Burns have made of our twenty-first-century North American Halloween extravaganza? He probably would find it as incomprehensible as the modern-day reader finds his poem.
And yet, throughout the ages to even the present day, Halloween festivities have had plenty in common with the goings-on that Burns describes.
For centuries, November 1 has been a Christian holiday, known as All Saints’ or All Hallows’ Day. The night before, October 31, was therefore known prior to eighteenth-century Scotland as Allhallow-even, the eve of All Saints’ or All Hallows’ Day, which was eventually shortened to Hallowe’en/Halloween.
The roots of the holiday itself, however, go back to the much older Celtic summer’s end festival of Samhain, which took place about halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. As a celebration of the people’s harvest with bonfires and feasting, it also served as a prelude to the darkest time of year, when nothing grows. It was a time to reflect on death and rebirth.
At this time of year, it was believed that the souls of the dead could cross back over more easily from the other world. These spirits needed to be appeased, so food was set out for them and disguises were worn to avoid being recognized by malevolent spirits who might play pranks on or cause more serious harm to the living. Combining both of these practices years later, people would take part in the act of mumming, where they would dress in costume and go door to door to perform in exchange for food and drink. This eventually evolved into our modern tradition of trick-or-treating.
The traditions that Burns described also arose from the belief about the barrier between the other world and this world becoming thinner at a certain date. And with all the spirits about, it was a good time to see into the future. So of course, his “merry, friendly, countra folks” participated in a whole slew of activities to help them discover their future partner.
The Christian church may have reframed and renamed the holiday, and our society may have turned it into an enormous consumer blowout, but Halloween has much deeper roots as a celebration of the cycle of life and death. Why not take a bit of time to reflect on this and remember your ancestors as this year crosses over into the dark season? You can still have your mini chocolate bars, of course.
*To burn their nuts, and pull their stalks (of kale and other greens),
**An’ hold their Halloween
***Cheerfully that night.
Jen Groundwater was born in Montreal and has been migrating steadily westward ever since; she now enjoys life and adventures in the Comox Valley with her unruly family and dog. She is the editor of the magazine CV Collective and associate/copy editor of the Canadian Rockies Annual, as well as a travel and lifestyle writer for a number of companies and publications.
Lydia du Bois is an educator, editor, and writer. She holds an MA in philosophy from SFU and a PhD in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she focused on communication in clinical settings. She provides individualized teaching at the Vancouver Learning Centre and designs customized learning resources in her spare time.
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