Halloween . The Eve of all Hallows.That time of the year when we gather to laugh loudly in the face of death: cock a snook of ridicule at our collective fears of the great unknown.It is upon us on the mildest October I can remember . The days of face-painting my girls’ faces and helping to carve out their turnip lanterns are now long gone, of course, but outside the whizzes and bangs of fireworks are just beginning to pepper the dark night sky.At least that rain deluge stopped just in time for the midnight revellers.
There has always been a religious context to Halloween in Northern Ireland, but then again there has always been an uneasy marriage throughout Ireland between customs and beliefs associated with Christianity and those associated with older religions that were Irish before St Patrick ever arrived from Wales, Scotland or England . Patrick’s provenance was never fully established .Did Patrick come from Ravenglass in Cumbria or somewhere in Wales or Scotland? Nobody can really agree on any of the legends.They become almost mythical tales , full of visions and voices giving instructions . Of course there are some who think that Halloween began with the Romans. They had a Goddess called Pomona, the goddess of fruits and seeds, who was given Autumnal offerings to hopefully keep her sweet and on humanity’s side. Gods apparently were very partial to a nice bit of fruit and vegetables at Autumn-time.Some think that the Harvest time offerings began with this.
The old pre- Christian festival of the dead was called Parentalia, and was linked to the Celts Festival of Samhain, which was an Irish name for the end of Summer . This is one of the most important days of the medieval Gaelic calendar and was celebrated in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man, Brittany , Cornwall and Wales.it was part of the Celtic mindset.
It always marked the beginning of Winter and that fear that the sun might not come back. You couldn’t be too sure of anything in that elemental world of spirits and visions ; where the very weather could be read as a sign of ill-will coming . This was the time that the faeries liked to come out and a portion of the harvested crops was left out for the spirits of the dead.There was a belief that the souls of the departed resided in another realm that lay closer at this time of year than at any other. The “souls” of the departed dead were said to crossover and revisit their old homes at this time of the year, because the two world then rubbed so closely together.In Ireland especially , the faeries were treated as powerful old gods capable of mischief-making and with super-powers to rival any Marvel comic superhero. It was a wise person who made sure that these pranksters were well-fed or at least offered some hospitality among us at the hearth.. Otherwise your straw roof might blow away a few weeks later or the crops in next year’s field might wither. The very pig that you depended on for food might keel over and die! This was a very serious business.
When my sisters and I were children , Halloween was a very special time. There were no pumpkins then . No one in Ireland grew these orange -skinned squashes.You might have heard about Cinderella’s coach being transformed from one but you’d never see them on sale in any shop .It was only when they started appearing in Hollywood films that they became the iconic grisly lantern with carved gapping teeth.That probably arose through the use of an easily available local resource , by Irish, Scottish and Welsh immigrants in the 19th century, who brought their culture to America. Until a few years ago we had to make do with the smaller, humble turnips.Now, pumpkins and various squashes are grown everywhere and have become the new traditional lantern in Ireland too. The tradition only began a few years ago.I suppose they all have to start somewhere.
During my childhood ,there would be various Halloween games and foods involving fruit and nuts. We would dip our faces into a basin of water with apples floating and try to pick one up in our teeth . An apple might be hung on a string on a washing line and you had to bite into it without using your hands. My mother would secrete a few shiny sixpences in the apple tart with a warning to eat very carefully or risk choking . You hoped you’d get that lucky coin-filled slice and not break a tooth in the process.I’m sure there would be some health and safety law invoked nowadays. My father would bring home a coconut and bags of mixed nuts .It was the only time of the year that anyone would ever see something as exotic as a coconut. There was an operation involved in carefully hammering a nail into one or two of the “eyes” at the base of the hairy nut and then carefully draining the resulting stream of milk into a glass.This was a mysterious and unusual drink and my sisters and I each vied for a taste . Then the coconut was struck with my father’s lump- hammer and shattered into bite-sized pieces to be shared .
We would then black up our faces with coal and go out to knock on doors and “Trick or Treat” There were always stories and legends of the bigger boys stealing gates or hiding bicycles in the hedge. A more cruel trick was to throw eggs at some poor woman’s neat clean windows .The resulting mess would have appalled any house-proud lady in those days before window-cleaners. I never remember doing anything like that. Eggs were a commodity that were not easily appropriated in any case ; especially when to waste such a resource , in such a cavalier manner ,would really have been frowned on . Usually we would knock a door and be offered a few pennies or sweets by the householder. If the toll wasn’t paid , the same door might be returned to,relentlessly, and knocked several times that evening. We’d hide in the darkness awaiting the irate result of our devilment.One trick was to tie a thread to the door knocker like Dennis the Menace in “the Beano” and pull the thread from a concealed space.
Then there are the bonfires …..In Ireland we have a very special tradition of bonfires.the flames and smoke at Halloween were supposed to have a magical power that would cleanse the air and possibly frighten off witches and the coming fear of the Winter’s darkness. Of course , still being steeped in superstition, myth and fear that even Christianity could never wholly tholl , the bonfire tradition still maintains extremely deep roots to this very day and the flames are still offered to the sky, even during the summer month of July. We might all like to think that we have dispensed with the very old religions but even in the 21st century the fear of the great darkness and the old pre-Christian gods still hold many of us in its grasp..