Hallowe’en or Samhain?
In our local county town the other day with my elder son, I couldn’t fail to notice the imminent arrival of Hallowe’en, even though it’s not (yet) as big a deal here as it is in the States. The shops windows were full of nylon cobwebs and orange and black plastic tat. Most of us are made vaguely aware that the northern hemisphere is turning towards the dark of winter, by the shortening daylight and the turning leaves. In town centres, however, it seems to be the colour of the plastic that is the clue to the season. (Next week I suppose that everything will be red and green for Christmas.)
I suppose that orange tat is only marginally more unappealing than red tat. What really bothers me is the imagery pedaled as appropriate to Hallowe’en. It seems to get darker every year. For several years we have had those shrieking ghoul masks (like Munsch’s ‘Scream’) for sale to children in supermarkets. I could put up with them when they were mixed with more innocent costumes: princesses, pirates, policemen. But I’m sure that there are fewer ‘childish’ costumes to be found these days. In Marks and Spencer, that bastion of middle-class respectability, my eye was caught by a pirate outfit. ‘Ooh, my pirate-obsessed four-year-old would like that’, I thought. Then I noticed that the jacket of the costume was pulled back to reveal a skeletal ribcage, and that the tricorn hat had a grinning skull attached below it. I know that plenty of kids will be out dressed as skeletons this Hallowe’en, but to me there is something disturbing about dressing my child in the outfit of a rotting corpse. Is that so strange? Am I being very po-faced about this?
If I am, I’m not alone in my discomfort. According to a newspaper report last weekend, parents at a Church of England primary school changed the name of the Hallowe’en disco to a ‘ “scary costume party”… some parents complained that Hallowe’en was not “appropriate” for a church school because of its associations with Satan.’ (Daily Telegraph, 23 October) There is a fascination with horror and gore which dominates popular culture at this time of year and which I find both baffling and slightly unnerving, not to mention inappropriate for children. Probably these parents were influenced by the same feelings. I’d take issue with banning ‘Hallowe’en’ from a faith school, nonetheless. Like most of our seasonal festivals, Hallowe’en is a complex layering of historical traditions but it has never, so far as I am aware, been about devil-worship. The very name is a Christian one, after all, meaning the evening before All Saints’ Day. And while, undoubtedly, the feasts of All Saints (November 1st) and All Souls (November 2nd) were instigated by the early medieval Church at precisely this time in order to eclipse the pagan celebrations of Samhain, those had nothing to do with Old Nick either.
Samhain, the pre-Christian Celtic season of winter which begins on the evening October 31st and runs to the end of January, was simply part of the cycle of the seasons. For our distant ancestors there was, it seems to me, an instinctive response to the natural world, to notice how the life-cycles of humans and the rest of nature echo each other, and to ritualise and celebrate the passing from one phase to the next. The season of winter or Samhain represents the period of old age and death in the life cycle; the ‘crone’ aspect of the goddess if you are being a little more mystical about it. In the modern world, there is perhaps a tendency to fear death as the end. Yet Samhain, not Imbolc (Spring) is the beginning of the old pagan year. Why so? Because our ancestors recognised, as we who are more removed from the natural rhythms have forgotten, that death is necessary for new life. Before the green shoots of spring must come the seed lying dormant in the cold earth. This is not to belittle death – anyone who lost someone dearly loved will know that death’s finality can seem overwhelming – but to comprehend it, to include it within the natural wheel of life. Certainly, then, the celebrations at the beginning of Samhain were about death, but my understanding is that they were far removed from the zombies and slasher movies of modern pop culture. This is how I would prefer to celebrate Hallowe’en: by all means let’s carve pumpkins, let the children dress up in old sheets as ghosts and eat skull-shaped sweeties, but personally, I will look at this weekend as the herald of winter, the time of introspection, reflection, remembering those we have loved, and looking to new life as the year turns.
‘From ghosties and ghoulies and lang-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night, good Lord, deliver us.’