Samhain: Night Lights 1,1

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The Celtic fire festival took on new expressions in the Middle Ages, some of which are still practised well into the modern-day. For instance, in Wales and the Scottish Highlands, servants and boys from around age eight into their teens would go to a bonfire built at the main street of the village, light torches, and run to field and farm, planting the torches at the boundaries of their properties. Families and communities might then build bonfires on hills close to their farms. These bonfires, called samghnagans, kicked off the land rituals of those nights. The intention, according to the Welsh, was to scare off faeries. In later years, they said it protected their farms and homes from witchcraft.

For those who went out into the night, they carried carved turnips on strings with a glowing piece of coal inside. These lanterns, called jack-o’-lanterns, came to refer to a Christian legend about a blacksmith named Old Jack—a man so evil that both heaven and hell refused him. With nowhere to go but purgatory, he had to roam the roads on Hallowe’en night with nothing but a turnip lamp to light his way. When Hallowe’en observances came to the New World, pumpkins were more common than turnips, so the Irish settlers used those for their lanterns instead.

Often the men of Wales might stay out at the bonfires also lit on hilltops on Halloween night, throwing firebrands at each other, engaging in somewhat violent games, and lighting off fireworks. When the fires burned out, they ran down the hills shouting. In the northern parts of Great Britain, sometimes they also carried noisemakers, such as bells and horns, that they played as they ran.