Observing Samhainn (sow-win), or Halloween as we know it in English, marked the onset of the dark months, following harvest time in the old Celtic world. The origins for Samhainn go back to pre-Christian times. It was widely believed in Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man, and other countries where Celtic languages are spoken, that Samhainn was a liminal time, meaning a brief period when the souls of the dead could wander among their mortal counterparts in an earthly presence. People’s concerns that capricious spirits would remain among the living inspired carving turnips with dreadful faces, for placing in window and doorways, to frighten malevolent souls back to their own place in the world beyond at the conclusion of Halloween. Youth dressed in ugly costumes and visited among village houses for a bit of cheese, or some other treat. Purification rituals also took place by way of bonfires intended to ensure that evils and ill luck associated with the winter months would be symbolically burnt away.
Gaelic custom in Nova Scotia has retained aspects of these historic agricultural times to the present. Turnips have been replaced by pumpkins and school children dress in costume to seek candy from nearby houses. Samhainn divination remains an evident tradition with the continuing practice of placing a ring (fainne), thimble (meuran), button (putan) and coin (bonn airgid) in a bowl of raw oatmeal mixed with cream and sugar. Partakers at the fuarag (foo-ar-ak) bowl delve with spoons for their share of the treat. One’s future is supposedly determined by the object found in the individual’s portion: a ring means marriage, the coin riches and the button bachelorhood. The thimble foretells the likelihood of being an old maid. Marriages were also divined in older times, with customs such as taking a mouthful of water from alt na crìche, the boundary brook between two farms. Should the unmarried be able to hold the water in his, or her, mouth while returning home, their future spouse would appear on the path way.
For a look at the fuarag tradition taking place in a contemporary setting go to An Drochaid Eadarainn (The Bridge Between Us), a Highland Village hosted website for Nova Scotia’s Gaelic language, culture and heritage: http://androchaid.ca/content/16/13
- 1 cup rolled oats (toasted oats optional)
- 3/4 cup sugar (or to taste)
- 2 cups whipping cream
- Combine whipping cream and sugar in a chilled bowl, whip together until soft peaks form
- Fold in oats
- Serve topped with brown sugar
Here’s a skit from one of our Oidhche nam Bòcan nights: