Before Trick Or Treat

What happened to "the Guy"?

Today, Halloween around the world seems to be dominated by the USA model of "trick or treat" where young people dress up and disguise themselves in masks and knock on the doors of neighbourhoods expecting gifts of candies. In later years the disguises have been getting leaner and money expected rather than candy. Some charities are using this event to collect their funds too. All of this waters down the old traditions and makes Halloween a time of modern begging without though of how this festival evolved.

My childhood was in England and we never heard of Halloween then, but November the 5th was "bonfire night", bonfire being short for "bones fire" but I'll write another blog about these forgotten terms before Samhain is past. Lighting of fireworks was part of this, said to be connected with Guy Fawkes and his failed blowing up of London's parliament, but I think it goes beyond that. However, we would make the "guy" a clothed straw stuffed doll wheeled around in a barrow and asking "a penny for the guy" to collect money to buy our fireworks. The finale of the fireworks and food from the bonfire, was to throw the guy onto the fire. More about the symbolism of that on another blog.

Please tae help the guisers

We raised our family in Scotland, on the Isle Of Mull, and there we experienced our first Halloween and Guisers. The Guisers were young people but had to do a bit more work then the trick and treat brigade of today. The guising children were disguised but also had to carry their lanterns carved from a turnip, known as rutebega in the USA and swede in Ireland and England because they do originate from Sweden. Some say Robert Burns brought both haggis and swedes from Sweden because he enjoyed his meal of haggis and clapshot, a mix of swede and potato, so much. Pumpkins did not really come to the UK and Ireland until about 1990 and the the simpler "trick or treat" tradition arrived with them.

Before 1990 guisers greeted the opening door with "We are the guisers, the guisers, the guisers, we are the guisers, come for halloween. Please tae help the guisers, and we'll sing ye a bonnie wee song". The guisers would then be invited in and would have to sign, or at least recite a poem and maybe do a dance before they earned a reward.

The reward was usually a fruit, apple or tangerine, some nuts some sweets and even a few pennies. Some homes made the guisers duck for apples in a big bowl or tine bath. Others had treacle scones hanging from strings that they used to have to grab by mouths with hands tied behind their back.

Guising, performed by these children came from an earlier tradition of Mummer's Plays where the performers were known as Guisers. Mummer's Plays is a huge subject that I would like to focus on more with another blog.

From druid spells to jester's tricks

Mummers Plays have descended from pre-Christian druid ceremonies and rituals that were later adapted by early Christian monks to demonstrate the gospels to their pagan communities. After reformations of the Christian church these ceremonies were revived by village communities as a form of entertainment that also maintained the basic ritual of closing one year and opening the next. This ritual was performed by converting the elements of old year and new year, dark and light, this world and the otherworld, and even good and evil through guised people in the form of hero, villian and healer along with additions such as a scoundrel, jester, maid, ringmaster, circle diviner, and damsel in distress.

Mummers Plays were one of the first big businesses of the early printing presses. "Broadsheets" of mummers plays scripts were sold, villages would re-write these according to legends of their region, such as St George being a hero in English mummers plays but often the villain in Irish mummers plays.

Galoshin is the most common hero of Scottish mummers plays. Galoshin is a mix of the Robin Hood and Herne The Hunter legends, a nature spirit in disguise who would beg from the rich to give to the poor as a symbol of taking back was was taken back from the land to give back to the land. The word Guising derived from the word Galoshin and the tradition of guising is known as Galoshing in Scotland.

I will speak much more about Mummers plays in future blogs, but they have evolved through the spirit of the druid tradition of killing the flame of the past year and starting a new year with a pure flame. The flame ceremony was done within a circle, a rath. This pure flame ceremony also marks the start of a three month communion with our ancestors when the veil between their's and our world is the thinnest. The time this communion ends is at Imbolc in February, the time of Brighid's flame. However, as mentioned in my past blog, Ride A White Swan, this is also known as a time when the Brighid spirit arrives on or as a swan and then departs on or as a swan at Imbolc.

So to welcome this season with our ancestors

So the Guisers and Mummers are symbols of our ancestors visiting the living of this world with the hope of being recognized by their song and words, their ways of passing on wisdom, the inspirations of bards. Some arrive to guide us through the rebuilding of new life to be born at Imbolc. Some arrive to collect the dead and unwanted to re-cycle into new life.

Gifts of the unwanted are now donations because under those ancestor guisers are real humans who love chocolate!

Mummers plays are most active in England, but mummers plays in Scotland, Wales and Ireland follow this guide to. As it says, its an introduction and a very easy read. It covers history, origins, heyday, mummers today, basic structure of plays with: names of characters; types of performance; types of play; costumes; venues, and attitudes. It includes how to start your own Mumming Play tradition and where to get materials. There are even some basic text templates that you can build your mummers play script on.

You can read more about
An Introduction to the English Mummers' Play
here, and order worldwide
arriving in time to practice at Yule
and then put on an Imbolc mumming event


  1. Bliain ur faoi rath agus faoi mhaise duit .
    Dara here from the Armagh Rhymers and liked your blog
    My son Macdara performed the old play as we call it or the mummers play
    in the irish centre NY this Christmas
    Packed the place for two weeks .
    Your line '' symbol of our ancestors visiting the living in the hope of being recognised etc '' is the root of the house visiting tradition .Montague calls us '' the night beast of the dead ''
    All the best for the new year
    Dara Vallely


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