The Origins of Halloween

Be Part of the Revelry in Scotland at Samhain

A trip to Scotland is one of our most popular small group tours, especially when it is combined with England and Wales. One of the best times to visit this area is in September and October when the crowds are gone, the landscape is ablaze with autumn’s colors, the skies have a purple-orange glow at dusk, and the seasonal produce dishes out some of the best food you will have all year long. If you travel to Scotland in October, Halloween here is a time like no other! The reason is simple, Halloween was born out of a Celtic festival whose roots run deep in Scotland. 

In a way, this should be no surprise when thinking about Scotland’s storied history of intrigues and murders, betrayals and loyalty, love and honor. And, then there is the landscape — shaped by nature herself  -  heather-strewn misty moors, rugged cliffs, windswept beaches, deep blue lochs, and an undulating landscape where sunny spells and dark shadows move – revealing hills at one moment and obscuring them at the next!  It is so easy to imagine witches and ghosts, goblins, and ghouls…and the Loch Nest Monster of course!  

Halloween is said to have come from “All Hallows Eve,” a  historic Christian celebration celebrating All Saints Day, but that is not the end of the story! Actually, Halloween has its origins in a Celtic pagan harvest festival originating in Scotland known as Samhain or Samhuinn in Scottish Gaelic. This ancient Scottish celebration symbolized the end of the summer and the oncoming of winter as well as celebrating the harvest. 

The most important belief of Samhain and its connection to Halloween, as we know it is the belief that the door to the spirit world is open and the dead can walk among the living once again. An ancient Scottish tradition was to leave an empty chair and plate of food for the souls of their ancestors. Fire also played an important part in Samhain ceremonies. In some villages, two bonfires were built for people and animals to walk between as an act of purification.  Afterward, hearth fires were doused with water and re-lit from the communal bonfire for good luck. Other villages lit torches and carried them around their homes and fields to protect them. Samhain wasn’t all ritual, as early as the 1700’s it was also known as  ”mischief night,” because of the pranks that were played!

Love of community is very important in Scotland and is part of their cultural heritage. A perfect example of this was the communal feasts that took place during Samhain that was finished off with a Scottish Halloween cake. Traditionally, the cake has a big face with sweet icing and cheeks filled with creme. When the cake is cut open, it reveals three trinkets, a ring, a coin, and a button. The person who got the ring would be wed, the person who got the coin would see riches, and the person who got the button would never marry!

Today we think of trick-or-treating as an American invention. Actually, this notion originated in Scotland where it is called guising, a shortened form of the word disguise. Wearing a disguise, children go door to door saying trick or treat for sweets. In return for their treat, children sing a song, recite a poem, or tell a joke. In ancient Scotland, costumes were much creepier than most are today. To the ancient Celts, Halloween was serious business and it was important to disguise themselves as harmful spirits to avoid them. 

Carved Jack-o-lanterns can also be traced back to Scotland that were originally carved from turnips, not pumpkins. In a Scottish folklore tale, a man called Jack o’ Lantern was a ghostly figure of the night who roamed the land with a burning lump of coal inside a hollow turnip. During Samhain, people would carve out turnips to create their own lanterns to keep evil away. 

An old-fashioned Halloween tradition, bobbing for apples also has its roots in Scotland where they call it “dookin” for apples. Ancient Celts believed that heaven would be full of apple trees, fruits, and flowers. In the past, apples were considered an important element in mystical Celtic ceremonies and fortune-telling. For example, the first unmarried person to bite into an apple when “dookin” would be the first to marry. Another tool used in prediction was Kale or Cabbage pulling. The shape and size of the stake pulled from the ground on Halloween night was said to represent your future lover’s height, and figure, and the amount of soil around the roots represented wealth.

Today, no matter how commercial Halloween seems to be, in its original form, it was not about expensive costumes and parties, it was an ancient Celtic ritual that has been celebrated in Scotland for centuries and has become popular around the world. If you are in Scotland in October on Halloween, you will have an authentic experience that will long be remembered.