Some might say that October 31 has lost its soul, poisoned by commercialism and plastic tat. I couldn’t disagree more, writes Clodagh Finn.
I LOVE those big imponderable questions, such as: “Is Halloween the new Christmas?” As if we need a new Christmas when the old one already starts as early as July in some department stores. Not that that is a bad thing. The more sparkle and the more fanfare — of whatever variety — the better, I say.
We need some distraction right now and anything that helps us to mark the seasons in a world so far removed from the natural rhythms is a wonderful thing.
And boy have we embraced Halloween. The ancient festival apparently originated here and in the UK before it migrated across the Atlantic. It wasn’t long before it made a return crossing — with bells on.
Time was when Halloween meant wearing a suffocating plastic witch mask and fashioning a costume out of a bin liner. Not any more. The extent to which we’ve gone professional was evident this week in the warning issued about the dangers of wearing zombie contact lenses. The creepy novelty lenses can cause eye irritation and have led to a rise in the number of admissions to A&E.
Their very existence shows how the attention to every grotesque detail has changed radically in recent years. Even the smallies trick-or-treating in our local estates look as if they’ve walked off a Hollywood set.
It’s not surprising, then, that some might claim that October 31 has lost its soul, poisoned by commercialism and plastic tat. I couldn’t disagree more.
True, we spend a small fortune on Halloween and we have embraced it as a sort of Little pre-Christmas. The estimated spend on spook is now more than €40m, with Irish households stocking up on food, alcohol, decorations and costumes.
This year, SuperValu alone is expected to sell 120,000 pumpkins, all of them grown by five local growers. That number is up several thousand on last year. The Halloween pumpkin is, apparently, the new must-have.
You can expect them to be carved into weird and wonderful shapes in a practice that is not so much American as rooted in a very distant past. According to one telling, that tradition stems from the story of the infamous will-o’-the-wisp, the ghostly light that flickered over bogs and marshes luring unsuspecting souls to their death.
The light was said to be held by a lost soul who was forever condemned to wander the earth and, as vengeance, sought out unsuspecting souls to join him. There are any number of stories about ghosts and ghouls who hover around the boundaries between the living and the dead. And somehow, it’s the dark, unexplained side of Halloween that appeals, because too often we are straitjacketed in a happy clappy vision of how life should be.
Look around and you’ll see that houses are wearing their Halloween apparel in ways that are often far more inventive and grotesque than the regulation Christmas fare. No pretty elves and saccharine Santas here — the bloodier and the more gruesome the better.
It’s as if Halloween, and All Souls Day that follows it, give us permission to inhabit some sort of limbo that rarely finds expression. Thankfully, we still tend to do that with a heady mix of the sacred and the profane.
Speaking of the latter, there is something truly delicious and liberating about casting off the rulebook for one night only. There are times when we need a large serving of ritual, excess and, yes, even defiance. Little wonder that Carnival, the wonderful Mardi Gras festival that lights up Venice before the start of Lent, once ran for six months of the year.
Keeping a public occupied with bread and circuses is one way of distracting the masses, but there is also a deep need within us to celebrate and mark the turning of the calendar page.
What harm if we look ahead to an event for weeks, even months. Leaving the commercial reasons aside — although considerable — it’s really important to tether ourselves to the changing seasons in the natural world.
In Ireland, Harvest segues into Halloweeen which explains why apple-bobbing remains popular. Some claim that the tradition dates to the pagan festival of Samhain and others say it is ancient Roman in origin, but I’m rather fond of this explanation.
In 1902, British writer WH Davenport Adams said it was an old Celtic tradition and described it thus: “[The apples] are thrown into a tub of water, and you endeavour to catch one in your mouth as they bob round and round in provoking fashion. When you have caught one, you peel it carefully, and pass the long strip of peel thrice, sunwise, round your head; after which you throw it over your shoulder, and it falls to the ground in the shape of the initial letter of your true love’s name.” Do try that at home.
Given the richness of the lore, it’s really disappointing to find that some are bent on watering down our one chance of immersing ourselves in a bit of subversive pageantry.
For instance, my local bakery does a wonderful barmbrack but, alas, it doesn’t come with a ring wrapped in tinfoil hidden among the plump raisins. “Health and safety, you understand,” said the charming lady behind the counter.
And I do understand. A hidden ring could play havoc with a dental implant, or the balance sheet of a bakery worried about being sued. How sad that it sometimes boils down to that.
Some younger people won’t even know of the tradition, and if they do you’ll be hard-pressed to find a person who can tell you what finding a pea in a piece of barmbrack means. Having said that, chomping down on a wizened pea — and finding out that it means you will never marry — is probably one tradition that we can probably do without.
As for Halloween itself. It’s not the new Christmas but a bigger, bolder version of itself. Bring it on.
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