What do you do for Halloween? Quite possibly you don’t buy decorations or festoon your home with pitchforks and slime. You or your children perhaps don’t wear a mask or scary costume to roam the neighbourhood, but perhaps you do get prepared and purchase lollies for other adventurous trick and treaters.
It does seem, that of all the retail pushes, Halloween polarises people the most. Some get into the spirit (no pun intended!), while others see it as another piece of American culture we don’t really need or have any connection with. However, the truth is that All Hallows Eve was a direct import from the British Isles, and was celebrated long before America was ‘discovered’.
In fact, far from being a recent import, Ashburton celebrated All Hallows Eve as early as 1904. In October that year the Ashburton County Scottish Society was established. They decided that their first event was to be a Halloween party. While today that decision might surprise people, the Ashburton Guardian of the time expressed no great astonishment, instead calling it an ancient Scottish festival.
At the Orange Hall
The Society’s first Halloween night was held in the Orange Hall, which was also home to the Masonic Lodge. Its popularity, with over 250 present, suggested that the following year the larger, Oddfellows Hall would be required.
The newspaper stated that many were dressed in highland attire and enjoyed the performances of highland dances, recited poems, songs and musical interludes. After the crowd had taken part in a few reels themselves, the amusements took place. A supper included oaten cakes and tea (how very unscottish!) to end a most successful night.
There were no witches or trick and treats, although one lady did push a man’s head under the water while he was ‘dooking’ for apples.
The following year the Society held a Bazaar in conjunction with ‘a Halloween’ for the children. The bazaar was held to raise money for costumes for the Pipe Band, which the Society had assisted in forming that year. The following year’s activities seem to imply that the Halloween was largely an event for the bairns, with entertainments for the adults less of a focus. The last reference I can locate is a comment that there would be no event in 1915, due to other activities in the town in connection with the War.
Games and oat cakes
The games and oat cakes sound all very jolly and far removed from the scary or evil themes associated with Halloween today. But somewhere in between the ghouls and oat cakes is the history behind the festival.
Halloween is a Celtic festival closely related to Samhain – the same harvest festival which for many years was a feature of some churches’ calendar and still celebrated in America as Thanksgiving.
Knowing that is was an autumn festival of abundance makes a little more sense as to why Ashburton children bobbed for apples or roasted nuts and American children still spend hours making Jack o Lanterns out of pumpkins.
Ghosts and goblins
So where do the ghosts and goblins come in? Apart from being a time of harvest, Samhain also marked the moment when the gap between the world of mortals and that of the dead became blurred. While some of the dead were friendly and were invited to share a meal, others were malign and could easily cause mishap if not placated by food or some other offering – hence the trick or treat. As with most such celebrations, the Christian Church transformed the night into All Souls Day and All Saints Day, where many churchgoers still pray for their departed friends and family.
So how did it become so Americanised? Again we have to blame the Celtic immigrants for bringing it to the New World. As with St Patricks Day, the American version is much more ‘vigorous’ than the original. Perhaps homesick Irish and Scots made an extra special effort to maintain the traditions while those at home let it wither. Certainly the aims of the Ashburton Scottish Society referred to “keeping up the interest in the old associations, dress, culture, music and literature” of Scotland.
In a melting pot of cultures it was important that they kept the old ways of home alive.
Jack o lantern
All this may sound quite unlikely given the general perception that Halloween is, like Thanksgiving Day, as American as apple pie. Certainly when one sees the ‘on special’ cauldrons, sour lollies, witches outfits and other paraphernalia that lie neglected in local stores, there doesn’t seem too much about the practice that shouts Scotland. However, the one item that most symbolises Halloween is the Jack o lantern – a carved pumpkin used to frighten away evil spirits. The pumpkin was an American adaptation of the tradition in Scotland where pumpkins don’t thrive, instead, their vegetable of choice was the much more sinister looking turnip.
I’m unsure if those long ago bairns of Ashburton who roamed the streets shouting ‘trick or treat’ or who were dressed in anything other than plaid, but I am sure there would have been at least one turnip in the hall – a chilling reminder of the All Hallows Eve traditions and the food of Home.
- Advertisement for first the Halloween in Ashburton, 1904. ©Ashburton Museum.
- Scottish Society Pipe Band in 1928. L-R from back, S Williamson, H Cooke, J McKay , E Lithgow, H Montgomery, R Harrison, A Stewart, J Drummond, A Henderson, J Lockhead, H Wear, A McIntosh, E Craighead, H Sinclair, D Wilson, G Robertson, J Sutherland, S Ross. Insert J McElhinney. ©Ashburton Museum.
- Ashburton County Scottish Society Hall. ©Ashburton Museum.
By Kathleen Stringer