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Hiding from Devils: 'Guising' on Halloween

Shards of an Ancient Culture

By S. A. CrawfordPublished about a year ago 3 min read
Image: Yaroslav Shuraev via Pexels

Born in Scotland in the '90s, I always knew this tradition as guising - it wasn't until the Americanization of our culture began in earnest that I heard it called "trick or treating". Less than 500 miles from the Artic Circle (with certain parts of the country closer to the Arctic than London), Scotland is dark and cold October. The nights draw in quickly and seem to hold intent, the air is cold and wet, biting at times, and the smell of decaying leaves and foliage is one I associate with this time of year thanks to the semi-rural nature of the town I grew up in.

With the sun rising at roughly 6.50 am and setting at around 4.30 pm, the day is short and the night holds sway. It makes sense, then, that the pre-Christian people of this land believed this night, traditionally the passage from the abundance of harvest to barren winter was a little... dangerous. As Christianity spread, the harvest festival of Samhain (pronounced Sow-wen in Irish, but Sav-en in Scots Gaidhlig) became All Hallows Eve, but the meaning stayed much the same.

This is a thin night when the natural world holds sway - the veil is thin, the night is long - beware!

The Night of the Graves Delight

“Tis the night—the night Of the grave's delight, And the warlocks are at their play; Ye think that without, The wild winds shout, But no, it is they—it is they!” ― Arthur Cleveland Coxe, Halloween: A Romaunt

The tradition of guising (which is found in Ireland as well as Scotland) is an old one that can be traced to the ancient Celts and early Roman Catholics according to, and that doesn't surprise me. Just as most cultures have an ancient harvest festival, most cultures have the concept of malevolent, otherworldy beings, and many decided that the best way to deal with this threat was to hide.

In Scotland, the belief held that on this night all manner of spirits and Sìth (or fae) creatures were at large and the dead could return to walk the earth. Children and adults alike dressed up to pass amongst them undetected, not at war with the world but at one with it. Banquet tables were set to placate unhappy spirits and people gathered together, perhaps for safety.

Other rituals can be found across the UK and Europe. In Somerset, England, for example, the Winter King would wield a flaming sword and wear a crown of foliage, wood, and bone. Many of these traditions were lost with the increasing strength of Christian beliefs, but new ones took their place, holding the spirit (pun intended) of the season in their hearts.

Mumming and Maleficarum

In England, a custom took up where people would dress up as ghosts, demons, and devils to perform hijinks and acts, entertaining others for food and drink. This process, known as Mumming, is sometimes believed to be the progenitor of the classically American 'Trick or Treating' tradition.

However, there are similar customs in many other places. In some parts of England and Europe, for example, the advent of November 1st as All Souls day led to a practice called 'Souling' where children would visit the houses of wealthier neighbours to seek gifts of food, money, and ale.

In Scotland and Ireland, the tradition that took root was called 'guising'. On All Hallows Eve, children would dress up as ghouls, ghosts, or even devils and visit households for sweets, fruits, nuts, or even coins. Visiting these households dressed as spirits, they performed, recited poems, or sang and received offerings in return.

Belief in such creatures was high in the Middle Ages and even the Early Modern period - after all, Scotland executed her last 'witch' in the 1700s. Nonetheless, the tradition outlasted earnest belief and was carried to America by Scottish and Irish immigrants who were bringing more recent traditions from Guy Fawkes night (or Bonfire Night) as well as the ancient festivals of their forefathers.

Today, the more widely recognized American version of the holiday and tradition takes precedence, but the ancient past is not so far gone here in Scotland; there are those alive who remember when Halloween was to Guise.


About the Creator

S. A. Crawford

Writer, reader, life-long student - being brave and finally taking the plunge by publishing some articles and fiction pieces.

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