Halloween used to really wind me up. The wholesale importing of the American tradition of trick or treating for the sole benefit of the supermarkets seemed pointless, expensive and unnecessary. It was not a big thing during my childhood, I dimly remember apple bobbing and lanterns made out of swedes (the vegetable that is) were something you really only saw on Blue Peter (long established British kids TV program); nobody actually bothered to do all that stuff, at least not in my admittedly limited experience. I’m not sure how and when the whole thing exploded into the big deal it is now.
My own first ever experience of modern Halloween in England came when I found myself actually being at home early evening of the 31 October, maybe for the first time in my adult life. I had recently moved into a house on a housing estate that could be described as a ‘family area’ with my other half, before we were married or had kids of our own. The knocks on the front door started at about 5.30 pm. At this time of year it is already pretty dark, and usually cold, I opened the front door to be greeted by a bunch of 3 or 4 little kids all dressed up as witches, skeletons and monsters of various kinds, looking completely adorable and chorusing “trick or treat”. Of course I was completely unprepared and had no treats of any kind to hand. We resorted to handing out change, 20 pence or 50 pence pieces, even £1 coins much to the delight of our little visitors, until we ran out. Then it was either draw all the curtains, turn the lights and the TV off and pretend to be out, or actually go out to the pub to get away from the constant stream of little trick or treaters. It was very cute, they had all made a fantastic effort with outfits and face paint and there was always a parent lurking in the background for the little ones and even the older ones were unfailingly polite, pleasant and gratifyingly “untricky”. So much harmless fun, but the next year I was ready with the sweetie stash and have been ever since.
Of course when your own kids get into all this, you get sucked in to buying the witch and monster outfits and the face paint. Just when are they old enough to go round the neighbourhood knocking on doors? Which one of us is going to trail round with them can be an especially thorny one on a cold rainy night in autumn.
Many years later, different house in a different part of the country, my daughter is a Brownie and the group is planning a Halloween party for the girls. This particular Brownie pack meets in the hall of a local Church, and a couple of days before the event, (outfits and make-up all sorted) parents get a text explaining that the Church has refused to allow the Halloween party to take place on their premises. The reason given was that Halloween is a pagan and Satanist ritual. Well I know the naked commercialism of it all can be pretty irritating and some people think that the supermarkets are the work of the Devil, but really. I was genuinely shocked and taken aback, so I decided to do a bit of research into All Hallows Eve.
I was surprised to find out that the whole “trick or treat” or “mischief night” as it was sometimes called, started in Britain and Ireland and was taken to America by the early settlers where it thrived and developed. Carving pumpkins into Jack o’ lanterns was so much easier than swedes (the veggies remember). While it certainly has pagan roots from pre-Christian, Celtic Britain, it is certainly not Devil worship. The festival marks the return of the dark time of the year, when there are more hours of darkness than of daylight, and it was also believed to be the night when the other world of the spirits and the departed was closest to the living world and was a time to remember those that we have lost in the past year. Sometimes, families would lay a place at the table for the spirits of relatives who were thought to return home for the evening. Pranks , tricks, and generally scaring people in the dark were always part of the evenings events, as well as offering food or soul cakes to callers.
All these traditions were suppressed by the fanatical Puritans during Cromwell’s rule over England in the 16th Century. Remember he even tried to cancel Christmas. In fact Halloween is a lot like Christmas in that it is a pagan, pre-Christian festival that continued into the Christian era. Much of the stuff we do at Christmas or Yule is pagan, bringing in the green holly and ivy, the lights and candles to remind us that while we are in the depths of the winter dark, the sun will return to us. The Church bolted on all the Christian symbolism onto a pre-existing festival, which is precisely why Cromwell wanted it banned. At least he was consistent.
So as Halloween is almost upon us again I have one child dressing up as a Zombie Bride with a dress from a charity shop and only one little headdress thing purchased from the shed loads of Halloween merchandise on offer. She looks good, it has already had one outing at the Scouts Halloween party (they have their own hall, so no troublesome bans) and she won a prize for best outfit. She will be out trick or treating and sleeping over at a friend’s house for the main event. My older one is now beyond going out trick or treating, but I will rope him in to dealing with our callers, I might even get him to don a mask or cloak or something. The sweetie stash is ready the pumpkin is waiting to be carved, and I will be marking the start of the dark time of the year. How many weeks till Christmas?