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Sketch Book of the North
Hallowmas Eve

"The good old customs of the country are passing away."

No speech, perhaps, is oftener heard than this when, over the walnuts and the wine about Christmas time or Hallowe’en, the talk has turned upon the subject of old-fashioned festivities. And the sentiment seldom fails to evoke a sigh of regret, and to awake recollections of frolic mirth enjoyed in lighter-hearted days. But while there is, without doubt, truth in the remark, happily it is not altogether true. The portly old gentleman who animadverts upon the subject is generally too apt to take for granted that, because for some decades he has ceased to share in these festal sports, the sports themselves have ceased to be observed. If, however, the speaker were to return upon such a night as All Hallow’s Eve to the village where perchance his youthful years were passed, he might find that the quaint and merry customs he laments do not altogether belong to the golden dusk of long-forgotten days. Though he himself has grown older and graver, the great heart of the world has remained ever young; and ever still, as the traditional occasions come round, there breaks forth amid its long-accustomed scenes the ancient madcap carnival of mirth.

Not, indeed, quite as in bygone times is this festival of Hallowe’en now observed. The witches no longer, as in days of yore, are believed to hold their revels then upon the green-sward, and something of the ancient superstition which otherwise lent awe to the eve of All Saints’ Day has been dispelled by modern education. But enough remains of uncanny feeling to lend interest to the more mysterious proceedings of the night; and the spirit of simple enjoyment may be trusted to keep alive for its own sake most of the mirth-giving functions of the feast. An institution which took its origin probably from some strange rite of far-back pagan times, which has managed to survive countless changes of thought, and, like a rolling snowball, to incorporate in itself traces of the Crusades, of the Mediaeval Church mysteries or miracle plays, and of later witchcraft and elfin superstitions, must have a strong hold somewhere upon human nature, and is not likely to disappear quite at once even before of the blast of the steam-engine and the roll of the printing-press.

If one wishes to know how lads and lasses spent their Hallowe’en in Ayrshire a hundred years ago, he has but to read the famous description of the occasion written by the glowing peasant-pen of Burns; and cold indeed must be his imagination if he does not catch from that description something of the frolic spirit of the night. In these lines he may hear the timid lasses "skirl" as their sweethearts surprise them pulling the fateful corn-stalks; he may watch Jamie Fleck secretly sowing his handful of hemp-seed, and waiting for the image of his destined true-love to appear behind him in the act of harrowing it; he may see Meg in the empty barn, weighing her "wechts o’ naething," and likewise waiting for her true-love’s presentment; and he may laugh at the mishap befalling the wanton widow as she dips her left sleeve in the rivulet at the meeting of three lairds’ lands. But one must not think that these time-honoured rites are all unpractised now.

Let him step into some great farm-kitchen of the Lothians, with its red fire roaring up the chimney, its plate-racks gleaming on the walls, and dressers, tables, and chairs clean as scrubbing can make them, and he will find in practice bits of traditional folklore and traits of human nature equally worthy of the poet’s pen.

The place for the moment is empty, the lamps shining from their bright tin sconces on the walls upon unoccupied wooden settles and chairs; for lads and lasses together have betaken themselves to pull each his particular prophetic stock in the kailyard at hand. But presently, with shouts of laughter, they come streaming in from the darkness; and shrieks of merriment greet the discovery of the fortune which has befallen individual members of the company. For, according as the stock lighted on in the dark turns out to be straight or crooked, and its taste sweet or bitter, so the appearance and disposition of its possessor’s future mate will be; and according as earth has clung to the uptorn root or not will the pockets of the future pair be well-filled or the reverse. A merry party these men and maidens make, bringing in with them as they enter a breeze of the cool night air and a breath of the sweet, fresh-smelling earth. And from the flaming cheeks and sparkling eyes of at least one of the laughing girls it is to be doubted that she has met outside with somewhat warmer and more certain assurance of the personality of her future partner in life than is likely to be afforded by her stock of curly kail.

Another method of divination, however, presently engrosses all attention indoors. Three bowls are set out on the hearth—one full of clean water, one muddy, and the remaining vessel empty. One after another each lad and lass is blindfolded, the position of the bowls is changed in thimble-rigging fashion, and he or she is led forward and invited to place a hand in one. According as the dish chosen proves dirty, clean, or empty will the inquirer of the Fates marry a widow or a maid, or remain a bachelor; and shrieks of merriment are occasioned by the appropriate mishaps which befall the most confident.

Then there is the burning of nuts to be done in the great kitchen-fire—a method of discovering whether the future wedded state is to be one of peace or discord. And it is amusing to see the quietest of the maids drop two nuts side by side into a red corner of the coal, blushing at the guesses made by her merry companions, but shyly whispering to herself, "This is Patey and this is me," and watching with bashful eagerness as the two take fire together. Puff! Alas for her hopes, poor child! "Patey" has shot away from her side; and the hot tears are woefully near her eyes as she notices that he has settled down to burn by the nut of her neighbour. May her sorrows, sweet lass, never have darker cause than this imaginary presage of losing a fickle lover!

And now, by way of supper, a mighty platter of "champed" potatoes is placed upon the table—a pile mountain high, in which are hidden somewhere a ring, a sixpence, a thimble, and a button. The lamps are put out, each person is armed with a spoon, and in the uncertain light of the glowing fire the mystic procession moves round the table in single file. Each one as he passes the platter takes a spoonful of potatoes, and he or she who finds the ring is fated to be first married. The sixpence is an augury of wealth, and the finding of the thimble or the button is, according to the sex of the finder, an indication that he or she will marry a maiden spouse or will die single.

But, listen! There is a sudden loud knocking at the door. It heralds the time-honoured visitation of the Guizards, a ceremony annually renewed by each succeeding generation of village boys. In they stalk, got up in grotesque improvisations of mumming costume, each armed with a wooden sword, and carrying a ghostly lantern hollowed out of a giant turnip. "Here comes in Galoshin," as that individual himself informs the company—being doubtless the traditional representative of some forgotten Templar Knight; and presently he is engaged in a sanguinary hand-to-hand encounter with another wooden-sworded champion upon the floor. Many are the bold words that are said and the doughty deeds that are done; and through the whole performance one may see, as Scott remarked in a note to Marmion, traces of the ancient monkish plays and the revels of the mediaeval Lord of Misrule. At the end the players are contented with a reward of apples and nuts, and a share in their elders’ merriment.

Tubs full of water are placed on the floor, and dozens of red-cheeked apples set swimming in them; and immediately a wild scene of revel ensues as all and sundry, men and maids, on their knees, seek to snatch the floating apples with their teeth. Many an unexpected ducking is got, and shrieks of laughter greet each mishap and each ineffectual effort to secure a prize. Then there is a wild game of blind man’s buff led off by Galoshin himself, who turns out, now that his burnt cork and whiskers have been washed off to be one of the younger men of the house, and the soul of all the fun. And from the sly fashion in which he avoids other quarry and keeps hemming one rosy little maid into corners, compelling her to spring shrieking over settles and chairs, it may be gathered that the knowing fellow is no more blinded than he wishes himself to be.

And so the night goes on, a night of wholehearted and innocent mirth—enough to prove that the spirit of old-fashioned revelry is by no means dead, and that, for at least one night in the year, the young blood of Lowland and Lothian still can wake as much and as joyous merriment as ever did its progenitors a hundred years ago.

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