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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
  • Hop-tu-naa, Trol-la-laa.
  • If you are going to give us anything, give it us soon,
  • Or we'll be away by the light of the moon.
  • Hop-tu-naa, Trol-la-laa.

  • 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.
    --Mummers' Song.
    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."
    --GAY: Pastorals.
    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."
    --GAY: Pastorals.
    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."
    --GAY,John: Pastorals.
    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."
    --GAY: Pastorals.
    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."
    --COXE: Hallowe'en.

     Related Source:

    "The Book of Hallowe'en" by Ruth Edna Kelley [1919] 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. [1891]

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