Patrick Wolf's history of Samhain
How the origins of Hallowe'en lie in the Gaelic festival of Samhain
Long before the commercialisation of 31 October, the date that we have come to know now as Hallowe’en, there was a Gaelic festival called Samhain that marked the beginning of the ‘darker half’ of the year: the end of the hopeful days of spring and the long, light evenings of summer. Samhain was a time when the boundaries between the living and the dead would vanish. It would allow our ancestors to visit and greet us, and for the malevolent spirits to cause us damage … and evil.
In the hope that we would see one of our loved ones from beyond the grave there were extra places set at the dinner table on the eve of Samhain: extra portions cooked in case we were reunited with our grandfather or long lost husband or daughter. The westerly-facing window of the house would be opened, and a beeswax candle lit at sunset to beckon the one we longed to see again back into the home they once lived in.
The tradition of carving jack o’lanterns began with the humble turnip. In old times ‘samhang’ were large turnips with terrifying faces, placed in windows overnight to deter stray demons from taking one of the sleeping family back with them, over the threshold, before the doors between the living and the dead closed once more for the year on the morning of 1 November.
So many of us from the UK complain how Hallowe’en is an American invention, how we only just started celebrating it in recent history – another Americanisation of our country. But it was the influx of Gaelic and Celtic immigrants to early America that kept this tradition alive. Just as our ancestors’ Scottish and Irish accents turned into east and west coast twangs, our turnips turned to pumpkins (I personally find it very hard to find turnips while on tour in the USA). Stories passed from mother to daughter for centuries were slowly turned into movie franchises and horror novels. In the meantime, due to the staunch Catholic Church trying to eradicate pagan celebrations across Europe, Samhain quickly became a secret on our own shores, celebrated in various forms under names like ‘mischief night’, ‘snap apple night’ and ‘nut crack night’.
It is true, Hallowe’en is an American festival, but it was imported and translated from us, the Irish and Scots. So this 31 October, carve your turnip, set an extra place at your table and see who or what comes to visit through that open westerly window.
Patrick Wolf plays The Liquid Room, Edinburgh, Sat 22 Oct.