Celtic Poems: Five "Hallowe’en" Poems
Bring forth the raisins and the nuts–
To-night All Hallows’ Spectre struts
Along the moonlit way.
No time is this for tear or sob,
Or other woes our joys to rob,
But time for Pippin and for Bob,
And Jack-o’-lantern gay.
Come forth, ye lass and trousered kid,
From prisoned mischief raise the lid,
And lift it good and high.
Leave grave old Wisdom in the lurch,
Set Folly on a lofty perch,
Nor fear the awesome rod of birch
When dawn illumes the sky.
‘Tis night for revel, set apart
To reillume the darkened heart,
And rout the hosts of Dole.
‘Tis night when Goblin, Elf, and Fay,
Come dancing in their best array
To prank and royster on the way,
And ease the troubled soul.
The ghosts of all things, past parade,
Emerging from the mist and shade
That hid them from our gaze,
And full of song and ringing mirth,
In one glad moment of rebirth,
Again they walk the ways of earth,
As in the ancient days.
The beason light shines on the hill,
The will-o’-wisps the forests fill
With flashes filched from noon;
And witches on thier broomsticks spry
Speed here and yonder in the sky,
And lift their strident voices high
Unto the Hunter’s moon.
The air resounds with tuneful notes
From myriads of straining throats,
All hailing Folly Queen;
So join the swelling choral throng,
Forget your sorrow and your wrong,
In one glad hour of joyous song
To honor Hallowe’en.
–J.K. BANGS in Harper’s Weekly, Nov. 5, 1910.
Who’s dat peekin’ in de do’?
Set mah heart a-beatin’!
Thought I see’ a spook for sho
On mah way to meetin’.
Heerd a rustlin’ all aroun’,
Trees all sort o’ jiggled;
An’ along de frosty groun’
Funny shadders wriggled.
Who’s dat by de winder-sill?
Gittin’ sort o’ skeery;
Feets is feelin’ kind o’ chill,
Eyes is sort o’ teary.
‘Most as nervous as a coon
When de dawgs is barkin’,
Er a widder when some spoon
Comes along a-sparkin’.
Whass dat creepin’ up de road,
Quiet like a ferret,
Hoppin’ sof’ly as a toad?
Maybe hit’s a sperrit!
Lordy! hope dey ain’t no ghos’
Come to tell me howdy.
I ain’t got no use for those
Fantoms damp an’ cloudy.
Whass dat standin’ by de fence
Wid its eyes a-yearnin’,
Drivin’ out mah common-sense
Wid its glances burnin’?
Don’t dass skeercely go to bed
Wid dem spookses roun’ me.
Ain’t no res’ fo’ dis yere head
When dem folks surroun’ me.
Whass dat groanin’ soun’ I hear
Off dar by de gyardin?
Lordy! Lordy! Lordy dear,
Grant dis sinner pardon!
I won’t nebber–I declar’
Ef it ain’t my Sammy!
Sambo, what yo’ doin’ dar?
Yo’ can’t skeer yo’ mammy!
–CARLYLE SMITH in Harper’s Weekly, Oct. 29, 1910.
Pixie, kobold, elf, and sprite
All are on their rounds to-night,–
In the wan moon’s silver ray
Thrives their helter-skelter play.
Fond of cellar, barn, or stack
True unto the almanac,
They present to credulous eyes
Strange hobgoblin mysteries.
Cabbage-stumps–straws wet with dew–
Apple-skins, and chestnuts too,
And a mirror for some lass
Show what wonders come to pass.
Doors they move, and gates they hide
Mischiefs that on moonbeams ride
Are their deeds,–and, by their spells,
Love records its oracles.
Don’t we all, of long ago
By the ruddy fireplace glow,
In the kitchen and the hall,
Those queer, coof-like pranks recall?
Eery shadows were they then–
But to-night they come again;
Were we once more but sixteen
Precious would be Hallowe’en.
–JOEL BENTON in Harper’s Weekly, Oct. 31, 1896.
A gypsy flame in on the hearth,
Sign of this carnival of mirth.
Through the dun fields and from the glade
Flash merry folk in masquerade–
It is the witching Hallowe’en.
Pale tapers glimmer in the sky,
The dead and dying leaves go by;
Dimly across the faded green
Strange shadows, stranger shades, are seen,–
It is the mystic Hallowe’en.
Soft gusts of love and memory
Beat at the heart reproachfully;
The lights that burn for those who die
Were flickering low, let them flare high–
It is the haunting Hallowe’en.
–A.F. MURRAY in Harper’s Weekly, Oct. 30, 1909.
JINNIE THE WITCH
- Hop-tu-naa! put in the pot
- Hop-tu-naa! put in the pan
- Hop-tu-naa! I burnt me throt (throat)
- Hop-tu-naa! guess where I ran ?
- Hop-tu-naa! I ran to the well
- Hop-tu-naa! and drank my fill
- Hop-tu-naa! and on the way back
- Hop-tu-naa! I met a witch cat
- Hop-tu-naa! the cat began to grin
- Hop-tu-naa! and I began to run
- Hop-tu-naa! I ran to Ronague
- Hop-tu-naa! guess what I saw there ?
- Hop-tu-naa! I saw an old woman
- Hop-tu-naa! baking bonnags
- Hop-tu-naa! roasting sconnags
- Hop-tu-naa! I asked her for a bit
- Hop-tu-naa! she gave me a bit
- as big as me big toe
- Hop-tu-naa! she dipped it in milk
- Hop-tu-naa! she wrapped it in silk
- Hop-tu-naa! Traa la lay!
- Are you going to give us anything
- before we run away with the light of the moon ?
- This version dates from the 1930s – a similar version is recorded in A.W. Moore’s “A Vocabulary of the Anglo-Manx Dialect” (1924)
“The Book of Hallowe’en” by Ruth Edna Kelley  A.M. Lynn Public Library – Boston – Lothrop, Lee and Shepard CO. Published, August, 1919
Hallowe’en traditions in the Isle of Man
Port Erin Bonfire Night
My ta shiu goll dy chur red erbee dooin, cur dooin tappee eh,
Ny vees mayd ersooyl liorish soilshey yn cayst
If you are going to give us anything, give it us soon,
Or we’ll be away by the light of the moon.
Each and every year we the Celts celebrate Samhain ,the Celtic New Year, or Summer’s End… some in the old ways and some in the Hallow’s Eve way. Originally, Celts celebrated the beginning of the “Long Night” , which is associated in fact to the Winter Season, or the ‘darker half’ of the year. ‘All Hallowtide’ – the ‘Feast of the Dead’, a special moment when the veil that separates us from the Otherworld vanishes, when the dead revisited the mortal world. Thus bonfires are lit to keep evil spirits away, but as it oftenly happens, Catholic Church “sanctified” this “pagan” wide spread rituals, so the night before was known as ‘All Hallows Eve’ becoming known by its contraction form as ‘Halloween’. Additional names for this celebration in Ireland are called “Oíche Shamhna” or “Samhain Night”.
Continuing my series of posts regarding this first and most important Fire Festival, let us know a little bit more this year about the Hallowe’en traditions in the Isle of Man.
Both the Celts and Norsemen, before the introduction of Christianity, held high festival at the beginning of summer and winter, the mid-winter and mid-summer feasts being more especially of Scandinavian origin. When Christianity was introduced, its ministers, unable to do away with these feasts, wisely adopted their periods as Christian festivals, and so they have continued semi-pagan in form till the present day.
The October’s 31st eve , Hallowe’en in English, is called Oie houiney in Manx, and is still kept in the Isle of Man on the 11th of November. The day itself is called Sauin, Souin or yn Tauin, corresponding with the Irish and Scotch Samhain, though the English “Holland-tide” is the name now usually given to the season and to the fair held on the 12th of November. Presently it is also known as ‘Hop-tu-naa’. The etymology of ‘Hop-tu-naa’ is uncertain, some sources speculating that it comes from Manx Gaelic Shogh ta’n Oie, meaning “this is the night”, though there are a number of origins suggested for the similar Hogmanay”, which is the Scottish New Year.
This day was formerly the first day of the first month of winter, and also the first day of the Celtic year. A tradition to the effect that it was the first day of the year still obtains among the Manx, who are accustomed to predict the weather for the ensuing year from that on the 12th of November, and this is emphasised by the fact that, as we shall see later, the ceremonies now practised on New Year’s Eve, were, within living memory, practised on the 11th of November.
According to the ancient Irish, Samhain Eve was the proper occasion for prophecies and unveiling mysteries. In Wales, within almost recent times, women congregated in the parish churches on this eve to learn their fortune from the flame of the candle each one held in her hand, and to hear the names or see the coffins of the parishioners destined to die in the course of the year. The Scotch believed that all the Warlocks and Witches assembled in force at this season, and perpetrated all sorts of atrocities. Similar beliefs to the above prevailed in the Isle of Man.
It was, therefore, very necessary to propitiate the Fairies, who alone were amenable to such attentions, on this night in particular. The leavings of the supper of the family were consequently not removed, and crocks of fresh water were placed on the table, so that ‘the little People’ might refresh themselves. Professor Rhys says that the reason why this night was regarded as “the Saturnalia of all that was hideous and uncanny in the world of spirits” was because “it had been fixed upon as the time of all others when the Sun-God, whose power had been gradually falling off since the great feast associated with him on the first of August, succumbed to his enemies, the powers of darkness and winter. It was their first hour of triumph after an interval of subjection, and the popular imagination pictured them stalking abroad with more than ordinary insolence and aggressiveness.”
It was, in fact, the time when the result of the combat which took place in May was reversed; then the powers of light gained the ascendency, now the powers of darkness. Bonfires were lit on Oie Houiney
, as on Oie Voaldyn
, and for the same reason.
MAN especially has a treasury of fairy tradition, Celtic and Norse combined. Manx fairies too dwell in the middle world, since they are fit for neither heaven nor hell. Even now Manx people think they see circles of light in the late October midnight, and little folk dancing within.
Longest of all in Man was Sauin (Samhain) considered New Year’s Day. According to the old style of reckoning time it came on November 12.
“To-night is New Year’s night.
As in Scotland the servants’ year end with October. New Year tests for finding out the future were tried on Sauin. To hear her sweetheart’s name a girl took a mouthful of water and two handfuls of salt, and sat down at a door. The first name she heard mentioned was the wished-for one. The three dishes proclaimed the fate of the blindfolded seeker as in Scotland. Each was blindfolded and touched one of several significant objects–meal for prosperity, earth for death, a net for tangled fortunes.
Before retiring each filled a thimble with salt, and emptied it out in a little mound on a plate, remembering his own. If any heap were found fallen over by morning, the person it represented was destined to die in a year. The Manx looked for prints in the smooth-strewn ashes on the hearth, as the Scotch did, and gave the same interpretation.
The ashes of the fire were smoothed out on the hearth last thing at night to receive the imprint of a foot. If, next morning, the track pointed towards the door, someone in the house would die, but if the footprint pointed inward, it indicated a birth.
A cake is made which is called Soddag Valloo or Dumb Cake, because it was made and eaten in silence. Young women and girls all had a hand in baking it on the red embers of the hearth, first helping to mix the ingredients, flour, eggs, eggshells, soot and salt, and kneading the dough. The cake was divided up and eaten in silence and, still without speaking, all who had eaten it went to bed, walking backwards, expecting and hoping to see their future husband in a dream or vision.
Another means of divination was to steal a salt herring from a neighbour, roast it over the fire, eat it in silence and retire to bed.
The future husband was expected to appear in the dream and offer a drink of water
As fruit to Pomona, so berries were devoted to fairies. They would not let any one cut a blackthorn shoot on Hallowe’en. In Cornwall sloes and blackberries were considered unfit to eat after the fairies had passed by, because all the goodness was extracted. So they were eaten to heart’s content on October 31st, and avoided thereafter. Hazels, because they were thought to contain wisdom and knowledge, were also sacred.
Besides leaving berries for the “Little People,” food was set out for them on Hallowe’en, and on other occasions. They rewarded this hospitality by doing an extra-ordinary amount of work.
“–how the drudging goblin sweat
To earn his cream-bowl duly set,
When in one night, ere glimpse of morn,
His shadowy flail hath threshed the corn
That ten day-laborers could not end.
Then lies him down the lubbar fiend,
And strecht out all the chimney’s length
Basks at the fire his hairy strength.”
–MILTON: L’ Allegro.
Such sprites did not scruple to pull away the chair as one was about to sit down, to pinch, or even to steal children and leave changelings in their places. The first hint of dawn drove them back to their haunts.
“When larks ‘gin sing,
Away we fling;
And babes new borne steal as we go,
And elfe in bed
We leave instead,
And wend us laughing, ho, ho, ho!”
–JONSON: Robin Goodfellow.
In the north of England Hallowe’en was called “nut-crack” and “snap-apple night.” It was celebrated by “young people and sweethearts.”
A variation of the nut test is, naming two for four lovers before they are put before the fire to roast. The unfaithful lover’s nut cracks and jumps away, the loyal burns with a steady ardent flame to ashes.
“Two hazel-nuts I threw into the flame,
And to each nut I gave a sweetheart’s name.
This with the loudest bounce me sore amaz’d,
That in a flame of brightest color blaz’d;
As blaz’d the nut, so may thy passion grow,
For ‘t was thy nut that did so brightly glow.”
–GAY: The Spell.
If they jump toward each other, they will be rivals. If one of the nuts has been named for the girl and burns quietly with a lover’s nut, they will live happily together. If they are restless, there is trouble ahead.
“These glowing nuts are emblems true
Of what in human life we view;
The ill-matched couple fret and fume,
And thus in strife themselves consume,
Or from each other wildly start
And with a noise forever part.
But see the happy, happy pair
Of genuine love and truth sincere;
With mutual fondness, while they burn
Still to each other kindly turn:
And as the vital sparks decay,
Together gently sink away.
Till, life’s fierce ordeal being past,
Their mingled ashes rest at last.”
-=GRAYDON: On Nuts Burning, Allhallows Eve.
Sometimes peas on a hot shovel are used instead.
Down the centuries from the Druid tree-worship comes the spell of the walnut-tree. It is circled thrice, with the invocation: “Let her that is to be my true-love bring me some walnuts;” and directly a spirit will be seen in the tree gathering nuts.
“Last Hallow Eve I sought a walnut-tree,
In hope my true Love’s face that I might see;
Three times I called, three times I walked apace;
Then in the tree I saw my true Love’s face.”
The seeds of apples were used in many trials. Two stuck on cheeks or eyelids indicated by the time they clung the faithfulness of the friends named for them.
“See, from the core two kernels brown I take:
This on my cheek for Lubberkin is worn,
And Booby Clod on t’other side is borne;
But Booby Clod soon drops upon the ground,
A certain token that his love’s unsound;
While Lubberkin sticks firmly to the last.
Oh! were his lips to mine but joined so fast.”
In a tub float stemless apples, to be seized by the teeth of him desirous of having his love returned. If he is successful in bringing up the apple, his love-affair will end happily.
“The rosy apple’s bobbing
Upon the mimic sea–
‘T is tricksy and elusive,
And glides away from me.
“One moment it is dreaming
Beneath the candle’s glare,
Then over wave and eddy
It glances here and there.
“And when at last I capture
The prize with joy aglow,
I sigh, may I this sunshine
Of golden rapture know
“When I essay to gether
In all her witchery
Love’s sweetest rosy apple
On Love’s uncertain sea.”
–MUNKITTRICK: Hallowe’en Wish.
An apple is peeled all in one piece, and the paring swung three times round the head and dropped behind the left shoulder. If it does not break, and is looked at over the shoulder it forms the initial of the true sweetheart’s name.
“I pare this pippin round and round again,
My sweetheart’s name to flourish on the plain:
I fling the unbroken paring o’er my head.
A perfect ‘L’ upon the ground is read.”
In the north of England was a unique custom, “the scadding of peas.” A pea-pod was slit, a bean pushed inside, and the opening closed again. The full pods were boiled, and apportioned to be shelled and the peas eaten with butter and salt. The one finding the bean on his plate would be married first.
Gay records another test with peas which is like the final trial made with kale-stalks.
“As peascods once I plucked I chanced to see
One that was closely filled with three times three;
Which when I crop’d, I safely home convey’d,
And o’er the door the spell in secret laid;–
The latch moved up, when who should first come in,
But in his proper person–Lubberkin.”
Candles, relics of the sacred fire, play an important part everywhere on Hallowe’en. In England too the lighted candle and the apple were fastened to the stick, and as it whirled, each person in turn sprang up and tried to bite the apple.
“Or catch th’ elusive apple with a bound,
As with the taper it flew whizzing round.”
This was a rough game, more suited to boys’ frolic than the ghostly divinations that preceded it. Those with energy to spare found material to exercise it on. In an old book there is a picture of a youth sitting on a stick placed across two stools. On one end of the stick is a lighted candle from which he is trying to light another in his hand. Beneath is a tub of water to receive him if he over-balances sideways. These games grew later into practical jokes.
The use of a goblet may perhaps come from the story of “The Luck of Edenhall,” a glass stolen from the fairies, and holding ruin for the House by whom it was stolen, if it should ever be broken. With ring and goblet this charm was tried: the ring, symbol of marriage, was suspended by a hair within a glass, and a name spelled out by beginning the alphabet over each time the ring struck the glass.
When tired of activity and noise, the party gathered about a story-teller, or passed a bundle of fagots from hand to hand, each selecting one and reciting an installment of the tale till his stick burned to ashes.
“I tell ye the story this chill Hallowe’en,
For it suiteth the spirit-eve.”
“The Book of Hallowe’en” by Ruth Edna Kelley  A.M. Lynn Public Library – Boston – Lothrop, Lee and Shepard CO. Published, August, 1919
“FOLK-LORE OF THE ISLE OF MAN” , Being An Account Of Its Myths, Legends, Superstisions, Customs, & Proverbs, – Collected from many sources; with a GENERAL INTRODUCTION; and with EXPLANATORY NOTES to each Chapter; BY A. W. MOOD E, M.A.; ISLE OF MAN: BROWN & SON, “Times” Buildings, Athol Street, Douglas. LONDON: D. NUTT, 270, Strand. 
Merry Samhain! – The Beginning of the Darker Half Of The Year & Summer’s End
Samhain (ˈsɑːwɪn/, /ˈsaʊ.ɪn/, or /ˈsaʊn/) is a Gaelic harvest festival held on October 31–November 1. Linked also to festivals held around the same time in other Celtic cultures, and popularised as the “Celtic New Year” from the late 19th century, following Sir John Rhys and Sir James Frazer.
As you may have noticed on previous posts, the Celtic year was not at first regulated by the solstices and equinoxes, but by some method connected with agriculture or with the seasons. Later, the year was a lunar one, and there is some evidence of attempts at synchronising solar and lunar time. But time was mainly measured by the moon, while in all calculations night preceded day.
Thus oidhche Samhain was the night preceding Samhain (November 1st), not the following night. The usage survives in our “sennight” and “fortnight.” In early times the year had two, possibly three divisions, marking periods in pastoral or agricultural life, but it was afterwards divided into four periods, while the year began with the winter division, opening at Samhain.
The date of Samhain was associated by the Catholic Church with All Saints’ Day (and later All Souls’ Day) from at least the 8th century, and both the secular Gaelic and the Catholic liturgical festival have influenced the secular customs now connected with Halloween.
It was only in 835 that Louis the Pious formally installed the festival on 1 November. In this, Louis merely made official the custom of celebrating the festival on 1 November which had been spread to the continent by the Anglo-Saxon mission, suggesting that the association of All Saints with 1 November is originally due to an Insular tradition,while the earliest references to the Irish festival of Samhain are found in sources of Irish mythology compiled in the 10th century and later.
The Celtic festivals being primarily connected with agricultural and pastoral life, we find in their ritual survivals traces not only of a religious but of a magical view of things, of acts designed to assist the powers of life and growth. The proof of this will be found in a detailed examination of the surviving customs connected with them.
The Samhain Festival, beginning the Celtic year, was an important social and religious occasion. The powers of blight were beginning their ascendancy, yet the future triumph of the powers of growth was not forgotten. Probably Samhain had gathered up into itself other feasts occurring earlier or later.
Thus it bears traces of being a harvest festival, the ritual of the earlier harvest feast being transferred to the winter feast, as the Celts found themselves in lands where harvest is not gathered before late autumn. The harvest rites may, however, have been associated with threshing rather than ingathering. Samhain also contains in its ritual some of the old pastoral cults, while as a New Year feast its ritual is in great part that of all festivals of beginnings.
We had considered also it’s conception as a Fire Festival. New fire was brought into each house at Samhain from the sacred bonfire, itself probably kindled from the need-fire by the friction of pieces of wood. This preserved its purity, the purity necessary to a festival of beginnings. The putting away of the old fires was probably connected with various rites for the expulsion of evils, which usually occur among many peoples at the New Year festival. By that process of dislocation which scattered the Samhain ritual over a wider period and gave some of it to Christmas, the kindling of the Yule log may have been originally connected with this festival.
Samhain, is also a festival of the dead, whose ghosts were fed at this time. A time when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is at its thinest, a time when the spirits of loved ones can return and so a special place is set at the table for any who so wish to join the feast. Traditionaly a candle to guide the spirits of loved ones home is lit in the window and also deters any unwanted spirits and is the origins of the pumpkin or jack-o-lantern.
It is a time when witches celebrate the wild hunt and the Horned God gathers the lost souls who linger or are unwary. The Godess takes on her role as the Crone or Wise One and so we look for wisdom and guidence.
Later belief regarded the sacrifice, if sacrifice there was, as offered to the powers of evil–the black sow, unless this animal is a reminiscence of the corn-spirit in its harmful aspect. Earlier powers, whether of growth or of blight, came to be associated with Samhain as demoniac beings–the “malignant bird flocks” which blighted crops and killed animals, the Scottish devilish Samhanach which steals children, and Mongfind the banshee, to whom “women and the rabble” make petitions on Samhain eve. Witches, evil-intentioned fairies, and the dead are believed to be particularly active these day.
Though the sacrificial victim had come to be regarded as an offering to the powers of blight, he may once have represented a divinity of growth or, in earlier times, the corn-spirit. Such a victim was slain at harvest, and harvest is often late in northern Celtic regions, while the slaying was sometimes connected not with the harvest field, but with the later threshing. This would bring it near the Samhain festival.
Divination and forecasting the fate of the inquirer for the coming year also took place. Sometimes these were connected with the bonfire, stones placed in it showing by their appearance the fortune or misfortune awaiting their owners.
Other rites, connected with the Calends of January as a result of dislocation, point also in this direction. In Gaul and Germany riotous processions took place with men dressed in the heads and skins of animals. As the people ate the flesh of the slain animals sacramentally, so they clothed themselves in the skins to promote further contact with their divinity. Similar customs have been found in other Celtic districts, and these animal disguises can hardly be separated from the sacramental slaughter at Samhain.
Samhain may thus be regarded as, in origin, an old pastoral and agricultural festival, which in time came to be looked upon as affording assistance to the powers of growth in their conflict with the powers of blight.
Perhaps some myth describing this combat may lurk behind the story of the battle of Mag-tured fought on Samhain between the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fomorians. While the powers of blight are triumphant in winter, the Tuatha Dea are represented as the victors, though they suffer loss and death. Perhaps this enshrines the belief in the continual triumph of life and growth over blight and decay, or it may arise from the fact that Samhain was both a time of rejoicing for the ingathered harvest, and of wailing for the coming supremacy of winter and the reign of the powers of blight.
“The Religion of the Ancient Celts” By J. A. MacCulloch – 
(All rights reserved)
Hallowe’en Traditions in Brittany
THE Celts had been taught by the Druids that the soul is immortal. When the body died the spirit passed instantly into another existence in a country close at hand.
In the fourth century A.D., the men of England were hard pressed by the Picts and Scots from the northern border, and were helped in their need by the Teutons. When this tribe saw the fair country of the Britons they decided to hold it for themselves. After they had driven out the northern tribes, in the fifth century, when King Arthur was reigning in Cornwall, they drove out those whose cause they had fought.
So the Britons were scattered to the mountains of Wales, to Cornwall, and across the Channel to Armorica, a part of France, which they named Brittany after their home-land. In lower Brittany, out of the zone of French influence, a language something like Welsh or old British is still spoken, and many of the Celtic beliefs were retained more untouched than in Britain, not clear of paganism till the seventeenth century. Here especially did Christianity have to adapt the old belief to her own ends.
Gaul, as we have seen from Caesar’s account, had been one of the chief seats of Druidical belief. The religious center was Carnutes, now Chartrain.
The pagan belief that lasted the longest in Brittany, and is by no means dead yet, was the cult of the dead. Caesar said that the Celts of Gaul traced their ancestry from the god of death, whom he called Dispater. Now figures of l’Ankou, a skeleton armed with a spear, can be seen in most villages of Brittany.
This mindfulness of death was strengthened by the sight of the prehistoric cairns of stones on hilltops, the ancient altars of the Druids, and dolmens, formed of one flat rock resting like a roof on two others set up on end with a space between them, ancient tombs; and by the Bretons being cut off from the rest of France by the nature of the country, and shut in among the uplands, black and misty in November, and blown over by chill Atlantic winds. Under a seeming dull indifference and melancholy the Bretons conceal a lively imagination, and no place has a greater wealth of legendary literature.
What fairies, dwarfs, pixies, and the like are to the Celts of other places, the spirits of the dead are to the Celts of Brittany. They possess the earth on Christmas, St. John’s Day, and All Saints’. In Finistere, that western point of France, there is a saying that on the Eve of All Souls’ “There are more dead in every house than sands on the shore.” The dead have the power to charm mortals and take them away, and to foretell the future. They must not be spoken of directly, any more than the fairies of the Scottish border, or met with, for fear of evil results.
By the Bretons of the sixth century the near-by island of Britain, which they could just see on clear days, was called the Otherworld. An historian, Procopius, tells how the people nearest Britain were exempted from paying tribute to the Franks, because they were subject to nightly summons to ferry the souls of the dead across in their boats, and deliver them into the hands of the keeper of souls. Farther inland a black bog seemed to be the entrance to an otherworld underground. One location which combined the ideas of an island and a cave was a city buried in the sea. The people imagined they could hear the bells of Ker-Is ringing, and joyous music sounding, for though this was a city of the dead, it resembled the fairy palaces of Ireland, and was ruled by King Grallon and his daughter Dahut, who could lure mortals away by her beauty and enchantments.
The approach of winter is believed to drive like the flocks, the souls of the dead from their cold cheerless graves to the food and warmth of home. This is why November Eve, the night before the first day of winter, was made sacred to them.
“When comes the harvest of the year
Before the scythe the wheat will fall.”
–BOTREL: Songs of Brittany.The harvest-time reminded the Bretons of the garnering by that reaper, Death. On November Eve milk is poured on graves, feasts and candles set out on the tables, and fires lighted on the hearths to welcome the spirits of departed kinsfolk and friends.
“We live with our dead,” Say the Bretons. First on the Eve of All Souls’ comes the religious service, “black vespers.” The blessedness of death is praised, the sorrows and shortness of life dwelt upon. After a common prayer all go out to the cemetery to pray separately, each by the graves of his kin, or to the “place of bones,” where the remains of those long dead are thrown all together in one tomb. They can be seen behind gratings, by the people as they pass, and rows of skulls at the sides of the entrance can be touched.
In these tombs are Latin inscriptions meaning: “Remember thou must die,” “To-day to me, and to-morrow to thee,” and others reminding the reader of his coming death.
A toast is drunk to the memory of the departed. The men sit about the fireplace smoking or weaving baskets; the women apart, knitting or spinning by the light of the fire and one candle. The children play with their gifts of apples and nuts. As the hour grows later, and mysterious noises begin to be heard about the house, and a curtain sways in a draught, the thoughts of the company already centred upon the dead find expression in words, and each has a tale to tell of an adventure with some friend or enemy who has died.
The dead are thought to take up existence where they left it off, working at the same trades, remembering their old debts, likes and dislikes, even wearing the same clothes they wore in life. Most of them stay not in some distant, definite Otherworld, but frequent the scenes of their former life. They never trespass upon daylight, and it is dangerous to meet them at night, because they are very ready to punish any slight to their memory, such as selling their possessions or forgetting the hospitality due them. L’Ankou will come to get a supply of shavings if the coffins are not lined with them to make a softer resting-place for the dead bodies.
The lively Celtic imagination turns the merest coincidence into an encounter with a spirit, and the poetic temperament of the narrators clothes the stories with vividness and mystery. They tell how the presence of a ghost made the midsummer air so cold that even wood did not burn, and of groans and footsteps underground as long as the ghost is displeased with what his relatives are doing.
Just before midnight a bell-man goes about the streets to give warning of the hour when the spirits will arrive.
“They will sit where we sat, and will talk of us as we talked of them: in the gray of the morning only will they go away.”
–LE BRAZ: Night of the Dead.The supper for the souls is then set out. The poor who live on the mountains have only black corn, milk, and smoked bacon to offer, but it is given freely. Those who can afford it spread on a white cloth dishes of clotted milk, hot pancakes, and mugs of cider.
After all have retired to lie with both eyes shut tight lest they see one of the guests, death-singers make their rounds, chanting under the windows:
“You are comfortably lying in your bed,
But with the poor dead it is otherwise;
You are stretched softly in your bed
While the poor souls are wandering abroad.
“A white sheet and five planks,
A bundle of straw beneath the head,
Five feet of earth above
Are all the worldly goods we own.”
–LE BRAZ: Night of the Dead.The tears of their deserted friends disturb the comfort of the dead, and sometimes they appear to tell those in sorrow that their shrouds are always wet from the tears shed on their graves. Wakened by the dirge of the death-singers the people rise and pray for the souls of the departed.
Divination has little part in the annals of the evening, but one in Finistere is recorded. Twenty-five new needles are laid in a dish, and named, and water is poured upon them. Those who cross are enemies.
“The Book of Hallowe’en” by Ruth Edna Kelley  – (all rights reserved)
Ruth Edna Kelley (8 April 1893 – 4 March 1982) was an American librarian and author. She is chiefly remembered for The Book of Hallowe’en (1919), the first book-length history of the holiday.
Kelley was born in Massachusetts, the only child of Charles F. Kelley, a carpenter, and his wife Mary. She grew up in Lynn, Massachusetts, and received a master of arts degree. Her other book was A Life of Their Own (1947), which dealt with immortality and spirituality. Kelley died in Marblehead, Massachusetts at the age of 88. (Quote from wikipedia.org)