Edward Scriven's engraving of John Masey Wright's illustration to Robert Burns' Halloween

Robert Burns and Halloween

Mentioned briefly by Englishman William Shakespeare in Measure for Measure, Halloween — the word, if not the celebration itself — is in actuality, distinctly Scottish. The contraction Hallowe’en is first recorded in the eighteenth century Scottish folk ballad Young Tamlane.  Of course, the Catholic feast of All Saints’ Day is centuries’ old, dating, some believe, to the 4th century. And the earliest form of the holiday’s name does appear in print as early as 1556 (where it is spelled, ‘Halhalon’ in the Chronicle of the Grey Friars of London). Still, it’s the Scots that can be thanked for much of what we associate today with Halloween. And marking the traditions of that day? Mentioning the holiday in some substantive way in a popular (well, in its day) work of literature? That distinction definitely goes to a Scotsman: Robert Burns.

Although the minor Scots poet John Mayne attempted to write about the subject in 1780, his work had apparently not caught on in the public imagination. Had Burns not seen it published in Ruddimans Weekly Magazine, it — and the subject — may have been forgotten, or at least put off until the next century. Yet something in Mayne’s work inspired Burns in 1785 to write his own poem, simply entitled “Halloween.” It was published in 1786, and the rest, as is often said with such things, is history. Except, one wonders how this history influenced our celebrations of Halloween. Or did it merely reflect it?

Edward Scriven’s engraving of John Masey Wright’s illustration to Robert Burns’ Halloween

Written in Scots and English, Halloween is a long poem (252 lines!). It briefly addresses the supernatural, but is quick to celebrate the common man, and the simple country life (with activities like harvesting apples and removing the chaff from wheat). Alternating among the activities of many characters, it is an oftentimes confusing poem. But it’s opening and ending are easy enough to follow.

In a matter of a single stanza, Burns suggests a playfulness among things supernatural. “Upon that night, when fairies light,” he begins. Adeptly, he sets the stage for both a traditionally spooky atmosphere (“beneath the moon’s pale beams”) and a lighthearted, supernatural romp (as the faeries set off “to sport that night”) — one that quickly shifts from supernatural to the simply human.

The common folk, it seems, also sing merry songs and play cheery sport. But to that celebration, Burns adds something less for faeries and more for the men and women of the poem: good food and drink. The poem ends with “buttered scones” that “set all their mouths a’stirring.”

Then, with a social glass of liquor,
They parted off careering
Full happy that night.

Robert Burns

There are games. Flirtations. Libations. Indeed, the party of the simple, country folk not only mirrors the celebration of the faeries, it surpasses them. For this one night, at least, men and women can be much like those creatures of the supernatural.

Here, there is no lament for the dead or overtly religious sentiment. The celebration is one of life, not afterlife. Party. Not prayer. Fun, not fear. Hormones, not gravestones.

An’ mony lads an’ lasses’ fates
Are there that night decided

For that common man or woman, there’s simply the joy that comes with being human: celebrating life’s bounty — its earthly pleasures.

Can a direct line be drawn between the poem and modern traditions of Halloween? Of course not. The influence of other parts of the British Isles combined with distinctly Catholic contributions made by immigrants to America in the nineteenth century (like the blessing and exchange of “soul cakes” leading to the modern-day practice of trick-or-treating), all combine to form the holiday as we know it today. Add in some costumes, scary movies, witches, and candy, and you’ve got the mash-up of elements that make for Halloween as we know it.

Still, a Scots poet can be credited with being the first figure in literary history to produce a work of some merit that takes All Hallow’s Eve and explores that special celebratory space between the natural and supernatural world. The poem is, in essence, a true Halloween party. Sans Snickers bars.

This from the man who also gave us Auld Lang Syne. But that’s another story for another day.