HALLOWEEN by Harry McAvinchey

Samhain_Autumn_Face (1)

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..

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