I usually hate it when people harp on about how things were better when they were a kid, but … umm… here goes. Halloween was better when I was a kid. It’s true. The reasons are threefold. 1. We went ‘guising’, we did not go ‘Trick or Treating’ – this meant we had to actually ‘do’ something first before getting our sweeties. 2. Treacle scones – my mum’s were legendary. 3. Pumpkins belonged to fairytales. Carving turnips? Now, we’re talking! And boy do I remember the farty smell of a day old turnip being gently warmed from the inside by a candle. In some shady areas of Stirlingshire (Kippen, fyi.*) they even went so far as to carve potatoes. (POTATOES! What dark arts were these?)
It is said that the pagan festival of Samhain is where many of these traditions originate. (Those pagans know how to throw a party!) Saim meaning ‘Summer and ‘fuin’ meaning ending, as this was the pagan New Year. Between the old year and this new year was seen a magical time. Boundaries between the real world and the world of ghosts, fairies and witches were at their weakest. Spirits could slip through and enter the human realm. Children dressed or (dis)guised as spirits of the dead, which meant that they could walk among the spirits without being noticed. (Although a ‘level crossing’ might not have blended in so well! Quite pleased with this year’s efforts nonetheless.)
In the Christian calendar the festival changed to celebrate All Hallows’ (Saints’) Day on the 1st November and All Hallows’ Eve being the night before – hence the name of the festival morphed into Halloween. Despite the attempt by the Christian church to sanctify this festival, many of its traditions have persisted. It seems we still all love a good scare!
One of the customs of going ‘guising’ when I was young was doing your ‘party piece’ – something you had to practise and learn in the run up to Halloween so you could perform it around the houses in exchange for sweeties. You’re not just given them as many kids seem to expect these days. This was nerve-wracking for a timid child like me, but the pull of the sugary treats was such that I always dug out the recorder and learned the tune by heart. I felt sick before I had to perform, but it was also a huge adrenaline rush for me when I completed the piece. I think this is an important rite of passage for kids. Let’s try to hang on to traditional Scottish ‘guising. Even the shy ones get a chance to shine.
Treacle scones. This might be a sweeter alternative to dookin’ for apples (apples were sacred fruit to the druids) but wherever it comes from… it’s brilliant! My mum used to hang string across the doorway to the kitchen, put newspaper on the floor and then she would dip homemade scones in a heady mixture of warmed butter, syrup and treacle and string up the scones. Longer strings for the taller kids and shorter ones for the smaller ones! You’d have to eat them without using your hands. This was THE BEST fun and really yummy. I think we are all a bit too worried about mess these days to get into the spirit of this one, but I urge you to try it.
Turnips. Okay this one is just pure nostalgia. It was REALLY hard carving a turnip. I remember trying to push in a teaspoon with such ferocity I almost broke the skin on my hand. And they looked… well… terrible! I will give you pumpkins. That one I will allow. And be it pumpkin or turnip either is preferable than the pagan tradition of placing a sheep skull on a pole to ward away evil spirits, which is where the tradition probably originates.
Happy guising, everyone! X
* This article is not meant to offend any persons from Kippen! But if you do have any photos of the terrifying Kippen potato, do send it firstname.lastname@example.org