The local supermarket is pretending to be the props department for “Night of the Living Dead”. There are plastic skulls, axes, hairy hands, spiders, broomsticks, masks more gruesome than many of the weekend shoppers in the Trafford Centre – and even life-size ravens with glowing red eyes. Also, a plastic fish skeleton – the relevance of which was lost on me. Pumpkins are everywhere – they only seem to hatch in October – and the colours orange and black predominate. In the DVD section, Walt Disney Disney get a look in (that’s a little joke for my Scottish reader). Superficially, it’s all quite light-hearted – I spotted some nice, girly, pink skeletons and was sorely tempted to buy a sparkly new, hopefully supercharged, broomstick for the woman next door.
But, notwithstanding a rather attractive witch pictured in the costume display, some of this Halloween stuff is actually quite unpleasant. Before you say, “Yes, it’s meant to be”, there are some very nasty pictures of small children made up to realistically resemble candidates for a post-mortem, and a proportion of the material on sale could be considered unhealthily morbid, if not downright malevolent. Should we be subjecting our children to this? Is this truly what an advanced society looks like? Oh dear. Given that most of this rubbish is manufactured overseas, I have often wondered what other cultures make of it; I am sure it encourages widespread respect. You even hear people, crassly, wish one another “Happy Halloween”. Really?! Of course, it is all a consequence of unregulated capitalism; that is not a criticism, just a statement of fact. Today’s Halloween is big business and owes so much to the same inspired philanthropists that bring us all those other wonderful, sincere, traditional celebratory occasions – like Obscure Relation Day, International Raspberry Day, Irritating Do-Gooder Day and Fluffy Bunny Day.
In short, something quite ancient has been hijacked by people who make it up as they go along, purely to make money. Until Halloween became the jolly time we all know and love, sensible folk would stay indoors and bolt their doors. But like many of us and our customs, it has a confused past.
In the Christian calendar, 31st October is Hallow even, the night of All Hallows, which precedes Hallowmas – or All Saints’ Day – on 1st November. “Hallows” is from the Anglo-Saxon word halig, meaning ‘holy’ – nothing to do with Harry Potter (sorry). So that’s where the name comes from; but what’s that got to do with all the scary stuff?
Brewer’s excellent Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, first published in 1870, says, Hallowe’en, “According to Scotch superstition, is the time when witches, devils, fairies and other imps of earth and air hold annual holiday.” It goes on to say that those born on All Hallows’ Eve are meant to have the gift of double sight and commanding powers over spirits. In my experience, double sight sometimes comes from having no commanding power whatsoever over certain spirits…but that’s another matter. In any event, Brewer makes no mention of Christianity and seems to be drawing heavily on Robbie Burns, who a century earlier wrote an entire poem about it and said that Halloween is:
“The night when witches, devils and other mischief-making beings, are all abroad on their baneful midnight errands; particularly those aerial people, the Fairies, are said on that night to hold a grand anniversary.”
31st October was (or is) the feast of Samhain (pronounced sah-win or sow-en), the last night of the year in the ancient Celtic calendar, and the end of summer with all its lightness and bounty. An ending leads to a beginning; so it additionally marks the start of winter, cold and black as the grave. The walls between our world and the next are thin and porous at this time, so this is when the spirits of the departed can most easily move amongst us, as can other phantoms, ghouls, spectres and banshees. Therefore Samhain is also the Feast of the Dead, a propitious time for witches and warlocks to hold particular rituals. Bonfires would be lit to help the sun on its way through the chill dark months ahead; perhaps the occasional, innocuous, sacrifice would be made.
Later, when Christianity came along, someone decided it was a good idea to have an All Saints’ Day, when every holy (or hallowed) person could be remembered. There are different ideas as to how and when this came to coincide with the older ritual, but there was doubtless a bit of competition going on. In the 9th century, Pope Gregory IV formally replaced a May festival of Martyrs with the Feast of All Saints on the 1st November, possibly to counteract the more established celebrations of Samhain. And 2nd November is All Souls’ Day for many traditional Christians, when prayers are said for the faithful departed and those in purgatory.
In some parts of Europe, it was customary to hold a vigil for the souls of close ones no longer in this world. Soul cakes would be baked and, in return for one of those, beggars would promise to pray for the dead of a household. The tradition of ‘soul caking’ is maintained in parts of Cheshire today, where actors perform a centuries old play intended to protect against the Dark. No doubt the revellers at Samhain would dress up, sporting antlers and representations of spirits – some of them malignant. Some say that that the ancient Celts dressed in white and blackened their faces during Samhain in an effort to fool evil spirits. Nicholas Rogers, a professor of history at York University, Toronto, even claims that in the Middle Ages “there was a certain degree of cross dressing in the actual ceremony of All Hallow’s Eve.” ‘Guisers’ – people in strange masks and costumes – certainly became popular from the 17th century in parts of Britain, going from house to house singing and dancing to keep evil at bay. Perhaps all of this was the origin of ‘trick or treat’, a phrase that emerged in the USA in the 1920s.
Food offerings may once have been left for the dead, and some believe that’s how the lantern made from a hollowed out pumpkin or other vegetable evolved. Carving lanterns from turnips was common in Ireland and Scotland, and exported by immigrants to the US, where the pumpkin is native and easier to cut. Pumpkins were virtually unknown in the United Kingdom until relatively recently. In the US, a carved orange-coloured pumpkin with a light in it is known as a ‘Jack O’ Lantern’ – itself with a legend that probably originated from Ireland. In England, Jack-a-Lantern is an alternative name for ‘Will O’ the Wisp’ – a ghostly light seen by weary travellers at night, or ‘friar’s lantern’ – an ignis fatuus (fatuous fire). Interestingly, my chum Brewer says that there is a Russian superstition that “these wandering fires are the spirits of still-born children which flit between Heaven and the Inferno.” Carved lanterns in windows would perhaps ward off evil – or perhaps guide the spirits. In Somerset, some villages celebrate Punkie Night on the last Thursday of October – spunkie is an old word for lantern.
In short, Halloween is a mish-mash of myths and legends from all over, a cocktail of beliefs and rituals which have been exported to other lands, particularly the USA, and re-imported. US servicemen stationed in Europe during World War II brought their hybrid traditions with them, ideas spread further, and gradually evolved, via films and TV. When I was growing up in England – oh, a very long time ago – Halloween was a night for staying under the blankets; bonfires and masks were reserved for 5th November, Guy Fawkes’ Night. Nobody went trick or treating in any big way until the 1980s (but they did in Scotland, where it is still often called guising) and, for many, the more recent celebration of the failure to blow up Parliament in 1605 is still more popular than its creepier calendar competitor – though you wouldn’t think so judging by the amount of Halloween-related material on sale.
Anyway, when the kids coming knocking on the door yelling, “Trick or treat?”, remind them that they are taking part in the latest manifestation of rituals that go back to a time out of mind. Or you could say that they are the victims of someone’s marketing plan and greet them, as I do, wearing a ghoulish mask. Of course, it’s just a bit of harmless fun…isn’t it?
The good news is that being frightened is beneficial for you, allegedly: fear gets adrenaline pumping, helping to relieve depression and stress, whilst at the same time boosting the immune system – and the libido. So put on a scary movie and have a really good night at any time of the year.