Sunday, May 11, 2008

Hallowe’en with the Ulster-Scots

Published in "Belfast in Your Pocket", October 06

As the summer ends, there are three main seasons in the Ulster-Scots traditional folk calendar during Autumn and Winter – Harvest, Hallowe’en and Hogmanay. Also known as “Haleve Nicht”, Hallowe’en is of course celebrated worldwide as a night of ghostly goings-on. Interestingly, the other Irish “quarter days” have never been observed by the Presbyterian communites of Scottish descent in Ulster, but Hallowe’en (All Hallows Eve) gave a degree of Christian justification for the Ulster-Scots to enjoy the festivities.

All of the usual traditions apply – bonfires, children visiting houses, rhyming, practical jokes and parties have been enjoyed at Halloween for centuries. Some of the more unusual, lighthearted traditions once included adults putting a small pile of salt on a child’s forehead at bedtime as an attempt to ward off any mischievous fairies! Gates would be removed from their posts and placed on roofs of nearby buildings – this was blamed on the spirits and “broonies” who had come out to play!

And of course bonfires were common in every townland, village and town right across Ulster. People would gather around them to sing, to keep warm, or to cook potatoes in the ashes around the edge of the fire. Some even practiced old Scottish traditions of fortune-telling – for example if two nuts were put together into the bonfire and they jumped apart it was time for you to find a new partner!

The food traditions are important too – all vegetarian – for example steamed apple puddings, fruit spiced duffs and barmbracks, some of which had coins or rings added to them for the lucky eater! A range of indoor games, like ducking for apples, biting apples suspended on a string - illuminated by candles inside carved turnips or large potatoes (American pumpkins are a very recent Halloween import to Ulster). Even the door-to-door antics of the Hallowe’en rhymers have a centuries-long tradition for Ulster-Scots. And of course, the world-famous bard Robert Burns wrote a poem called “Halloween”.

Even in America, the old Hallowe’en cards often had tartan and Scottish themes on them. (See illustrations)

So watch out for the broonies and don’t chip a tooth on the coin in your apple pudding!

(for further information, see “Harvest Halloween and Hogmanay” by Philip Robinson in “Halloween and Other Festivals of Death and Life” by Jack Santino, published by University of Tennessee Press, 1994)