Halloween is judged to be the US’s second largest commercial holiday – though technically it is not a holiday. Neither government offices nor schools close, but the weeks preceding October 31st are still overrun with ghouls, goblins and gratuitous greed.
If it were just the children involved in dressing up and going around their own neighbourhood trick or treating I could, I think, live with modern Halloween. It has after all been around a very long time. But I struggle to find anything charming in seeing university students, and older, ringing doorbells dressed as the latest movie horror hero threatening mayhem unless candy is given. Somehow seeing an i-phone or a Blackberry whipped out from under the folds of the grim reaper’s cloak, so the generousity of an area can be checked, rather spoils the image of the poor begging for a “soul cake” from the wealthy, who in turn would ask for prayers to be said for their dead relations.
Like many festivals the origins have been clouded, and commercialism has colluded in the cover up. Halloween is now said to net just under seven million dollars annually in the US. That’s a lot of candy to stop the tricks. Though I suppose sacrifices have been made since way before the Celts celebrated the New Year on November 1st.
Two thousand or so years ago those ancients believed there was a brief time between the old and the new year when the boundaries between the two blurred, life and death mingled. The latter invariably causing trouble.
Rather later in 1975 Chris de Burgh, the Irish (okay Anglo-Irish) singer wrote about battling for the souls of the dead in his song Spanish Train. Well God’s not around, and look what I’ve found, This one’s mine!
But the Druids, Celtic priests, dressed in robes and animal masks did their utmost to ward off evil those thousands of years ago, by lighting huge bonfires upon which they sacrificed animals. They would then re-light their hearth fires with the dying embers of the bonfire to ensure good fortune in the coming year. I can see that being a kind of fun end of the summer deal, though I’m not so keen on the dead mingling with us live ones.
Enter the Romans, and enter the Celtic lands they did, about four hundred years later. All change. Samhain, the Celtic word for ‘summer’s end’ became Feralia, essentially the same thing. But they added a new twist. The day after All Hallow’s Day they honoured Pomona, the Roman Goddess of Plenty, symbolised by the humble apple. Hence the fun to be had while dunking one’s head, hands tied behind the back, into a barrel full of water trying to grab an apple with one’s teeth! It was Pope Boniface IV who tried to put an end to all this pagan folly and announced that henceforth November 1st would be All Saint’s Day, when all the saints and martyrs would be honoured.
Fast forward to the early days of America when the Puritans frowned deeply upon all this frivolity, certainly in New England. But in other parts of the country, and with the influx of immigrants particularly from Ireland, Halloween once again became popular, and more secular.
Superstition remained though. Young women still spent hours peeling apples – not to bob for – but to toss over their shoulders to see which letter the skins would most resemble, thereby predicting the name of their future husband. Some would toss chestnuts into the fire, having first named each nut. The one remaining unexploded would be the future provider. Ah me!
Today’s rituals were sanctified by the civic-minded gentlefolk of the cities and suburbs in 1950’s America. Vandalism had become an issue on Halloween, it being hard to identify masked marauders, and so public events were encouraged. Parades and parties were organised and trick or treating re-emerged as an inexpensive way for communities to share.
But where I wondered does the ubiquitous pumpkin fit in, especially the carved one, apart from being an abundant Autumn vegetable. It’s back to those Celts! Strange flickering above the peat bogs brought about many folk tales, and then the scientists got involved. They told us the ‘ignis fatuus’ (foolish light) seen above the decaying mosses and lichens of the bogs was actually caused by oxidation of phosphine and methane. Another theory mentions Barn Owls, whose luminescent wings can sometimes reflect enough light from the moon to produce a flickering, which would explain why you can never catch the light! But how many Barn Owls are there over the bogs – doesn’t their name imply barns and wooded areas rather than swamp?
Will-o’-the-wisp is a pretty name for those untouchable lights, but Jack o’ the lantern reflects the much more ghoulish tale of Stingy Jack who made a deal with the Devil. Sure the Devil agreed, and handed the Irishman an ember from the fires of Hell. There being no room in Heaven for Jack, and he wasn’t going to Hell, he roamed the lands a part of neither world, carrying that ember in a carved out turnip looking for somewhere to settle.
We got the vegetable wrong, but the battle continues. As de Burgh (himself a TCK – Third Culture Kid) says, Lord, oh Lord, you’ve got to win, The sun is down and the night is riding in. That train is still on time, oh my soul is on the line….Oh Lord, you’ve got to win.
I’d say the winners at Halloween are the candy-makers and Hallmark – the Devil in disguise?