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Oidhche Shamhna; Halloween


One of the oldest celebrations in many countries around the world, Oidhche Shamnha, Halloween, All Souls Night, Samhain takes place soon. It happens over a few nights between the end of October and the beginning of November.

In Blàs of the Highlands, I had various celebrations running through from the 31st of October through to about the 7th of November. I love the thought that there are so many cultures out there that do something during this period.

For some, they look at it as a dark and scary time. They want to chase away the nasty things that might lurk somewhere in the dark. Light is a must to combat this. Other people regard it as a thoughtful period, a time of remembrance, a chance to feel nearer to someone they have lost. Then there are those who want to be more in tune with the earth and its seasons and look at this time as a sort of bedding down towards winter.

Cultures have changed and adapted their celebrations over time. Many traditions have thankfully died out. Sacrifices and other unsavoury elements are hopefully long past their acceptance date.

In Scotland we have guisers. You wouldn’t find me calling them trick or treaters. One of the main reasons for my stand on this is basically from the name. Where I come from guisers have to perform for the hosts whose home they have entered. It is a symbiotic relationship between the home they have entered and the guisers themselves. The guisers recite a poem, joke, or song. They chase away evil by their performance and mode of dress. Perhaps in reality it is the laughter and joy from all this that chases away the dark The homeowner gets the ‘evil’ flushed from their homes and pays the guisers in fruits and sweets.

Trick or treating by its very name is a threat. You treat me or I play a trick on you! What value at so young an age does that say to children? It is almost blackmail. I often wonder (giving that this custom in all probability originated from here in Scotland) if the word trick has taken on a new meaning in the USA. Maybe trick actually meant way back, a performance. The children would do a trick like a story, poem, or song just like the original guisers in Scotland. The trick was not something horrible you would do to the people who refused you a treat but rather a recital, a wee show. I wonder if values will change over time and the trick will go back to that of a small concert for the household.

This year our celebrations are a wee bit early. Already we have some ‘artistic’ creations on our window. Well, what is the point of having a few bairns around for the day if you not going to do something with coloured paper, glue, and make a general mess around the place?

I tried to catch some of the traditions I remembered in my Gaelic Children’s Book, Oidhche Shamhna. It is built around a wee boy who goes out on Oidhche Shamnhna even though he was told not to. It ends with some games I remembered like, ‘dookin for apples’ which I know still takes place. I don’t suppose way back when though treacle or jam was spread on pancakes then tied to a string. I rather suspect these days this has probably developed again and doughnuts are used. After all, these are almost ready-made to slide a string through the middle.

I look forward to the smell of burning turnip in neap lanterns on the night, the only time of year where I actually enjoy this. What price a little bruising on the fingers, and a couple of dented spoons from scooping out the neap, when it means tatties and mashed neap for tea and a scary lantern on the night?

Whatever way you celebrate this time of year a thread can be followed way back through time. The Celts have celebrated for at least 2000 years. I am always amazed to think that link is still here in some form or other.


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