You learn a lot about your own culture as you travel abroad. It seems counterintuitive, but for us Americans, whose culture is an odd mish-mash of traditions from other cultures, this is especially true. Case in point: Halloween.
Growing up in the US, especially as a Catholic, Halloween was just a fun thing. After all, the happy free way we give and receive candy and treats from our neighbors was a cause for excitement, even if we had to dress up like goblins and ghouls to get it. Only when I was living in Poland did I realize that there were people who might object to this. When I asked my class of teenagers if they were doing anything for Halloween, one of them replied, “Halloween is a bad and evil tradition, and we should not teach children to do it.”
While I maintain that that was a bit of an overreaction – the modern Halloween, like I said, is just a fun thing – he did have a point. Our modern Halloween comes from a long, ancient, and pagan tradition. When I moved to Scotland, I saw that tradition in action.
Halloween is an invention of the 9th century, when the Catholic Church created All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day to celebrate and remember our dead. It happens that All Saints’ Day, which is November 1st, falls at roughly the same time as the Celtic feast of Samhuinn.
There are a multitude of spellings of Samhuinn, since the Gaelic (the native language of Scotland and Ireland) did not have a written form until Irish monks decided to adapt the Latin alphabet to suit their needs in the Middle Ages. At any rate, the preferred spelling in Scotland in Samhuinn (pronounced sah-vin). In addition to haggling over spelling, scholars debate where the word itself comes from. Most seem to believe that the word comes from two other Gaelic words for summer and end.
Which would be appropriate, since Samhuinn is the festival to acknowledge the end of summer and the beginning of winter. From all the records we have, Samhuinn occurs midway between the fall equinox and the winter solstice, marking the end of the harvest season and the start of the short, dark days of winter.
As I mentioned before, Gaelic was not a written language until the Middle Ages. Thus, we have no written records from the Gaelic-speaking people themselves as to what this festival was all about. Everything we know comes from tradition that’s been passed down over the years and a few outside sources, such as odd notes of the few Romans who were brave enough to venture into northern Britain and some musings of 18th- and 19th-century scholars.
What we do know is that this festival was celebrated with fire, and large bonfires were often built in villages for the celebrations. It also enacts the struggle between Summer and Winter for supremacy. Obviously, Winter wins this particular battle, albeit temporarily. Summer just goes off to lick its wounds before it returns again the following year.
One of the things I love about the Scottish is how simultaneously modern and traditional they are. As a people, they are warm, welcoming, and tolerant, but also unabashedly and unapologetically Scottish. I mean, they welcome people from all over the world, but still wear kilts and dance ceilidhs. And for them, it’s not odd, or kitschy, or some stuffy tradition – it’s just what they do. In that mindset, the Scottish, who are a predominantly Protestant Christian nation nowadays, still celebrate Samhuinn.
The Beltane Society (Beltane is another Celtic festival, the spring counterpart to Samhuinn) every year puts on the Samhuinn Fire Festival in Edinburgh. When I was in Edinburgh, it was free and open to the public, with a fire-lit procession down the Royal Mile. The event culminated in a staged battle between Summer and Winter and their allied forces outside St. Giles Cathedral.
In recent years, the festival has gotten so popular, that the Beltane Society had to move the event to Calton Hill, where they have a bit more space for attendees. Even when I attended, the Royal Mile was packed, much like it was during the Fringe Festival, with barely any breathing room. Calton Hill will offer much more space to spread out and enjoy the spectacle in all its macabre and pagan glory.
Attending the Samhuinn Fire Festival:
Getting there: Calton Hill is located just north and east of the Royal Mile; the main path up the hill is located just down Princes Street from the Balmoral Hotel. Any bus that runs on Princes Street or North Bridge will drop you off within a five-minute walk of Calton Hill.
Admission: Starting in 2018, the Beltane Society has had to impose an entrance fee for the event for crowd control. Even so, it’s still quite affordable!
- £8 for adults
- £4.40 for children
- £3.30 for people with low incomes
Hours: The event is on October 31st, from 7PM to midnight.
Website: You can visit the official Beltane Society’s Samhuinn Fire Festival website here.
Good to know:
- It’s October, almost November, in Scotland. Dress in layers and top off with a waterproof parka. Also waterproof shoes. Also a hat. Trust me.
- This is a pagan event. As such, there’s a bit of nudity and blood-curdling screeching involved. Ye be warned.
- There’s a lot of standing in one place involved in this festival – wear comfy, waterproof shoes and be prepared to be on your feet for a while!