So You Think You Know About Halloween?
The darkest hour is just before dawn and it was at this time a man heading for the fair noticed a dark stranger walking silently behind the cart.
Afraid he speeded up to put some distance between them. When he felt he’d gone a good way he turned to look but the man was still there, still behind the cart, still silent…
His heart beating fast the man tried to speed away again but it was no use, every time he turned to look the silent stranger was still there, so he did the only thing he felt he could do, he offered the stranger a lift…
The stranger hopped noiselessly onto the cart. When they reached the town the stranger gave him a sixpence and left.
Relieved to be rid of the stranger the man went into the pub for a drink, paid with the sixpence and pocketed the change.
Next in a local shop he reached for the change in his pocket only to find the sixpence still there. Once again he paid and pocketed the change but all day long no matter how much he spent the sixpence he still had it. As it was becoming dark again he grew frightened, he tossed the sixpence into the yellow river in the middle of town and headed home. And it’s still there to this day.
This story, as told me by my mother Nora Fox, was the kind of tale you could expect to hear around the fire on a night like tonight, All Hallow’s Eve, Samhain, the division of the year between the light half and the dark half.
For ancient Irish people this was a frightening time. They had no electricity and lived very much by the seasons. They could see the light declining day by day. The obvious question was what if it didn’t come back? It’s all too easy for us in our modern houses to dismiss this kind of fear. But if you think about it, how dependent people were on the sun, on the hours of light, for survival, to grow food, to move around. You only have to look at how crazy we get in a power cut. It makes total sense.
But for Christian Ireland, who adapted the feast, that is my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents time, the fear grew and became even greater. Why? Because the fear moved from the pagan, real life fear of a loss of light, and therefore life, to an arguably greater fear, that of meeting the dead…
Much like in ancient Ireland it was tonight that was celebrated, All Hallow’s Eve, not the day itself. For people who were used to simple food all year, the whole month of October was filled with thoughts of, and preparation, for the great feast that would take place through midnight tonight. The original midnight feast, imagine that excitement.
Apples, nuts, and berries, collected all autumn and turned into jams and cakes were stored in preparation. All day today the mothers and grandmothers would be busy making toffee apples, boxty (potato) dumplings, and potato cakes, while the fathers and grandfathers kept the home fires burning bright. Sloe or apple wine stored in the rick of hay a month before would be brought in for the table.
In the early evening the games would begin and the bonfire lit, they didn’t know it at the time but this was an ancient symbol of man’s attempt to assist the weakening sun across the skies. The children went bobbing for apples and coins, played games like blind mans buff and danced around the bonfire. But no child would be left alone, and no one, adult or child, would be out if it happened to be a moonless night…
Aside from the great feast of food it was also now the feast of all saints and so very important to the religious, christian people of the time. All thoughts would be for local people who had died. The belief was that this was the one night the souls could wander the earth, and would.
For people in 1940’s Ireland before electricity autumn was a golden time with a kind of magical light you wouldn’t find any other time of the year. That added to the poetic, magic, and decay. But once winter came, that dark and decay of the season was all consuming, and more deeply felt for people who lived only by candlelight. Melancholy, stories, especially stories, was how they dealt. To be fair, how well do we deal today?
My mother remembers going to wakes (the Irish tradition of ‘waking’ the dead, where family and friends sit with the deceased for a time before removal and burial, to celebrate the life, tell stories, say prayers, and mourn)
In the dark lanes she went, holding her mothers hand, so tight. In the house, that was dark too, the body of this person you knew was laid out, dark houses, dark lanes, and then home again. At every age you knew the people as they lived, you saw them in death, and you spent, a great part of the year in darkness. So you had no problem imagining ghosts. Everyone believed it. It was a combination of fervent religion, ancient custom, and the reality of life. These were very religious people, the believed in god, they believed in ghosts.
When the feast tonight had ended, the table was reset and another feast laid on all night for the wandering souls.
One, less poetic tradition, was leaving a hollowed out turnip with a carved face and lit candle, at a spot where someone reported to have seen a ghost. This was done purely to scare someone who was already scared, a trick of sorts. And the origin of our Halloween pumpkin.
In the 70’s and 80’s, when I was a child, Halloween was a magical night, because our mother made it so.
We too had bonfires, played all the same games, and enjoyed the feast, moved now to the 31st instead of the eve. We also dressed up and went trick or treating, not done in my parents time but adapted from the mists of time, when people dressed their children for protection from bad spirits.
To my mind there was always something magical about Halloween, dancing around the bonfire and walking the lane we felt there could be witches and ghosts about, it was a little scary but unbeknownst to us we felt much like the ancient Irish, we felt protected by our costumes. One thing we didn’t feel however was any fear of the dead or meeting anyone who had died. This was a welcome change from my parents childhood, Halloween had become more about fun than fear.
So tomorrow night when millions of children around Ireland, the UK, and America, dress up and go trick or treating few will be aware of its ancient Irish roots and of what it meant to the millions of people who went before them. And to those I’ve seen who compare Halloween to devil worship and say it isn’t for christians, oh yes, I’ve seen that today. (eye roll, and yes, it was American) I’d say, leave it back to us if you wish. Back to the land of its birth. Christian, pagan, or witch, this was never about devil worship, fool. It was always about life, fear, celebration, survival.
Happy Halloween Witches…