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Happy Samhuinn

The Day of the Dead
It's October the 31st today and we all know what that means but instead of talking about Hallowe'en or 'Trick or Treating', I would like to tell you a bit about the ancient Celtic festival of Samhuinn (pronounced Sow-in) and sow as in the female pig as opposed to sow seeds. Samhuinn translates as 'Summer's End' and falls halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.

Samhuinn (Scottish spelling) was and in some cases, still is celebrated in Scotland, Ireland and The Isle of Man. It is the time of year by which the harvest must be gathered in and everything is ready and prepared for winter. This is also the time when the country folk brought their cattle down from the summer pastures to be closer to the farm and selected the ones to be slaughtered to provide food for the communities over the coming winter months.

Although November 1st is officially Samhuinn, the night of October 31st or November's Eve plays an important part in the festival because it is believed that this is the night that the veil separating our world from the other world is at its thinnest and so the souls of the dead are invited back into this world to share in the great feast. Traditionally a place at the table is set for them so that they can join in the celebrations. The problem with this of course is that not only good spirits can come through the veil. Evil and malevolent spirits can also cross over and this is how the tradition of 'guising' (disguising oneself), came about. People would wear masks and turn their clothes inside out so that 'bad' spirits wouldn't  be able to recognise them. The insides would be scooped out of turnips or swedes (not an easy job) and faces cut into the side of them. Candles were placed inside the hollowed out vegetables and they became known as Jack O' Lanterns. These were carried around the villages to ward off negativity and frighten away evil spirits.

In Scotland, particularly up here in the Highlands, bonfires were lit on hilltops to celebrate the gathering of the  harvest and the beginning of winter. Objects which people wanted to give as gifts to the gods would be thrown into the fires. The ashes from the fires were then scattered on the fields in the hope that the gods, having enjoyed their gifts, would look favourably upon the land and improve the soil, thus ensuring good crops in the following year. Whilst all this was going on, groups of young men from each village would go from door to door blowing on cow horns as they went. When their neighbours answered the door they were treated to a poetry recital and they would reward the young men for their efforts by giving them food as well as other gifts.

And so, hopefully, from this you can see where many of today's Hallowe'en traditions originated. By the way, Hallowe'en is the Christian name for the Samhuinn festival and was adopted much later on. The word was originally Hallowmas.


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