Being of Celtic origins, I've always had a fascination about the ancient festival of Samhain, the precursor to our modern day, overly commercialized version of Halloween. Samhain, Samhainn (Scottish Gaelic), Sauin (Manx Gaelic) or Samain (Old Irish) began sometime during the 10th century as a harvest festival held October 31-November 1. The festival marked the end of the harvest or lighter half of the year and the beginning of the darker half of the year. The festival also marked the end of trade and warfare for the season and was used as a time of gathering of clans. It often included a cleansing ritual in which farmers and their livestock would walk between two huge bonfires.
Samhain figures prominently in Irish and Scottish folklore. However a thread that runs through both is that Samhain is a time of unusual supernatural phenomena. In fact, many Samhain festivals incorporated a remembrance of the dead as far back at the 11th century (Feile na Marbh festival of the dead as introduced by the Catholic Church).
In modern Ireland and Scotland, Halloween is known as Oiche/Oidhche Shamhna and to this day it is still custom to set a place for the dead that the Samhain feast table.
The Samhain bonfire that was so iconic still plays a part in the festival in some rural Celtic areas. As was the custom for centuries, once the bonfires are blazing, villagers extinguish all other fires. Each family then comes to the Samhain fire to relight their own fires.
Our custom of costumes also comes from our Celtic kin. Originally costumes were worn to ward off evil spirits. The costumed villagers would carry small lanterns carved from turnips. Larger turnips were hollowed out, carved with faces and placed in windows to ward off evil spirits, much as our present day Jack OLanterns.
Trick or treating may have began in Scotland in the 16th century as guisers or men in disguise who would go about the area in costumes, carrying the turnip lanterns and offer entertainment in return for food or coins.
In modern days, Samhain has been coopted by pagans and wiccans as a festival of the dead and or a 'sabbat'.
So this Halloween, whilst you are about trick or treating, carving pumpkins, and watching scary movies, I urge all of you, but especially those of you with Celtic roots, to remember those who have walked before us, those who made the long trip to North America and brought with them their Celtic/Gaelic customs. As well, turn your minds to those that have passed on. Perhaps a whispered thought or prayer just might stray through the thinned veils and make its way to their ear. If you listen carefully, you might just hear them too.