All Hallows

So Hallowe’en is supposed to be fun? Fun? Really?

Over on Facebook, a friend was asking about Hallowe’en traditions, having seen an English newspaper report  expressing concern that the UK had irrevocably now imported the American customs of Hallowe’en – from fancy dress to carving pumpkins to trick-or-treating. And my friend’s point was (quite correctly): “Wait a minute, didn’t we export Hallowe’en to them in the first place?”

Look, I’m not down on the North American Hallowe’en. They really go in for it in a big way. In Toronto this time last year we were amazed at the pumkin art, the house decorations, the front yards tricked out like grave yards complete with giant anamatronic spiders, the number of people in costume on the day itself. They treat it like a holiday, and – yes – it is fun.

They treat it like a holiday. When I was young we treated it like a sacred rite.

Okay, that’s may be a bit strong, but when I was maybe five or six I believed (pretty much the same way as I believed in Santa) that we had to dress up when we went out on Hallowe’en night because then the witches and goblins would think we were of one of them and not carry us away to have our bones boiled for broth. A country town in the West of Scotland in late Autumn was the perfect place to bring a notion like that to irrefutable life in a child’s imagination. Early dusk on evenings suffused by mist or drizzle haze or else steely cold under star chipped black skies. The pavements slippery with leaf mould or a silver skin of frost.  The smell of damp and bonfires. The gardens thick with hawthorns and rowans all twigs and thorns and red berries. The perfect environment for witches reach out from and grab at you.

And you didn’t want to be grabbed, so when you went out guising you went out in disguise as one of them. You dressed like a ghost or a witch or a skeleton. And to persuaded watching eyes that you were in the company of spirits you took a lantern with you that was carved into a grotesque face.

So let me ask you a question. If you wanted to persuade the goblins that you were in with them, which would you choose: a big old orange cartoony pumpkin or the gnarled nugget of complete bastard that is the turnip? Sure pumpkins are much easier to carve, and the effects that some people manage with them is astonishing, but isn’t that missing the point? To hollow out a turnip you need serious hardware and a lot of effort. The results are going to be necessarily crude. You’ll probably cut yourself…but a little blood probably adds to the charm and ensures your disguise will be effective.

Pumpkins are safe and goofy. Turnips are fucking primal.

When you get a turnip lantern carved and lit inside by a candle and swinging on a length of string like a goblin’s head, you’ve no doubt it’ll do the job.

Witches and goblins abroad and doing mischief on All Hallows Eve, the night before All Souls Day, of course was the post-Christian interpretation of the Celtic Samhain being one of the nights in the year when the crossing narrowed between the world of mortals and the world of the fae. Reappropriation is the default mode of western culture. And the dominant culture for now is the American one. So we have pumpkins and parties and dressing up in Slutty Vampire costumes or as superheroes or cartoon characters (and please, the phrase is “dressing up as” not “cosplay”). And it’s fine. It’s a good laugh.

Go out and have fun at Hallowe’en if you must. But will it save your soul?


2 thoughts on “All Hallows

  1. Nice post you’ve got there, Neal 🙂 Very atmospheric descriptions; they reminded me of visitng the cemeteries with my folks on All Souls’ Day at night (minus the scary costumes).
    I took the liberty of posting the link in one or two places where some people complained about Halloween being “mainstream”, “commercial” and “American”.

    1. Cheers Krystyna! I’d actually love to know what customs other countries have around this time of year. I always thought it was mainly a Celtic thing.

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