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Hallowe’en or Samhain?

October 30, 2010

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.)

Without orange plastic pumpkins, how could we know that it's nearly Hallowe'en?

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.

P.S. Oh – but just in case this is all a bit too Celtic-twilighty for you, let’s not forget the good Scottish prayer for Hallowe’en:

‘From ghosties and ghoulies and lang-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night, good Lord, deliver us.’

15 Comments leave one →
  1. October 31, 2010 12:22 am

    I am quite conflicted regarding Hallowe’en (for many of the reason you so well mentioned). I have no patience with people (and organizations) that want to cancel it altogether, or change the name to something meaningless – scary costume party, indeed!! – and equate it with Satan. Kids just want to dress up and get free candy. That being said, I find it sad that this tradition is sweeping the globe to countries where it was never observed before.

  2. Margaret Lambert permalink
    October 31, 2010 12:42 am

    The holiday has taken on a much darker tone (in the U.S.) over my lifetime, but I had a lot of fun putting together costumes for my son and daughter: scarecrow, prince, Rapunzel, old miner, Raggedy Ann, and a lot of characters from their favorite books. We had popcorn balls and delicious caramel covered apples only at Halloween, to make it a treat. Cutting a pumpkin out of a local field was fun. For years we had buffet dinner parties before the children walked around to the neighbors. This year our eldest grandson, age 4, is a happy clown while his cousins are a tiger and a tom cat. Nothing too scary, just another generation of old-fashioned fun.

    • dancingbeastie permalink
      October 31, 2010 4:08 pm

      Violet Sky, I agree with everything you say and, as always, a deep breath and a sense of perspective help! In Scotland we have an old tradition of ‘guising’ which predates the American Hallowe’en, I imagine, but it does seem to be turning into the American version more every year. I’ve nothing against that per se, but we outside the U.S. so often seem to absorb the worst of Americana: orange plastic yes, Thanksgiving no, for example. Ach well!

      Whereas, Margaret, your version of Hallowe’en sounds just delightful. I hope you and your family have a very happy one!

  3. October 31, 2010 1:32 am

    Last night I saw a picture on a blog of a costume deemed not just “suitable” for an infant but really fun and cute too. It was a sleeper suit into which had been set a second arm on one side complete with lifelike plastic hand peeping out of the sleeve. As a long ago mother who still remembers the relief with which I produced a “normal” child and who also worked with children with multiple handicaps and challenges, this is not something to be made light of, and yet there must have been thought to be a market for this.
    On a lighter note, thank you for the pictures of your beech wood and thank you too for the pictures from your interlude in Skye. I found your reference to mouth music fascinating, as it was part of the regional music when I was growing up here in Nova Scotia, but I have heard no reference to it for at least 40 years.
    I recall being part of a massed children’s choir on a long ago royal visit who sang “will ye no come back again” – to what I imagine was the bemusement of a monarch of Hanoverian descent. We do treasure our Scottish heritage!

    • dancingbeastie permalink
      October 31, 2010 4:16 pm

      Hi Janet, thanks for your comments. (As for your first point: !!!!!!! Words fail…) Yes, puirt à beul is alive and flourishing in the highlands and islands of Scotland. If you are interested, have a look for Julie Fowlis on Amazon or similar: she is a young singer from the Hebrides with a beautiful voice, who keeps winning prizes in the world of folk music. Her first solo album was called ‘Mar a tha mo chridhe’ and contains several fine examples of mouth music.

      I’m sure it is very good for our royals to have to listen to Jacobite songs occasionally. Anyway, they have inherited Victoria’s love of all things Scottish, so no doubt they felt quite teary-eyed listening to your choir!

  4. Jessica permalink
    October 31, 2010 3:14 am

    Well Kate,

    I’m definitely proving myself to be a country bumpkin this Hallowe’en. These N. American city folk go for it big-style and I’ve had to ask other mums about how it’s done for kids here. The adults & uni students are already in full-blown party mode, roaming the streets in full regalia. Can’t really bear the idea of my kids going to strangers’ doors and demanding treats without doing a trick first, but that’s what they’re doing tomorrow. Daisy will be going to houses I don’t know with friends I don’t know. I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto! And there’s certainly no city connection to the passing of time and changing of seasons. Of course, we won’t be feeling the cold quite as much as you do (a minor gloat there), but the autumn colours are truly spectacular.

    • dancingbeastie permalink
      October 31, 2010 4:23 pm

      It does sound a bit anxious-making for a newbie! But I’m sure Daisy will be fine and will have a great time. Anyway, you stay true to your instincts and your own way of doing things, insofar as you can. Naethin’ wrong with being a country bumpkin! Thinking of you in your cosy house with the fabulous colours outside…the colours are brilliant here, at last, but the best is over already. I think we’ve had a total of about 5 days of blazing colour this autumn! Short but sweet.

  5. October 31, 2010 7:44 am

    Fantastic post. I really enjoyed it. I love all the ghoulish charm of Halloween, but I understand the point some make about allowing children to dress up as corpses. I think with the popularity of films like Pirates of the Caribbean and Twilight, children (and adults alike) are numb to the symbols they are wearing.

    More than anything I love the way my body responds to this time of year, and as Samhain nears I cannot bear for it to be over. When the natural world dies the air takes on the sweetness of it. I love my cravings for autumn fruits and root vegetables. I love flinging the window open and feeling the chill air wrap around me. It’s just the best thing, really. 🙂

  6. Jane permalink
    October 31, 2010 9:56 am

    Once again, thank you. This morning you gave me the gift of taking a moment from an already hectic day, to read, absorb and reflect.

    My children are all too aware of the ‘give me sweets’ and ‘who can dress up in the scariest outfit’ but that’s when mums and dads step in. Our own family tradition of going guising whatever the historical facts are is what we all hold dear. Sing a song, do a dance, connect with neighbours and friends on a chilly night.

    Light the candles, it’s time to get out my lavender fairy costume!

    • dancingbeastie permalink
      October 31, 2010 4:33 pm

      Sophia, thank you. I could tell from your own recent post that you are a child of autumn. You’re so right about the sweet taste of the dying year. I must say that I haven’t let my children watch Pirates of the Caribbean: no doubt they are more sheltered from pop culture than most, but I just think it has images that are too scary for little children, even with the compensation of the splendiferous Captain Jack. The first time I saw it, that monkey at the end of the credits made me jump a mile off the sofa! 🙂

      Jane, thanks. You do write generous comments. Old-fashioned guising is a delight for everyone and I hope you have a great evening. Maybe the lavender fairy will earn a few sweeties for herself too!

  7. Barbara M. permalink
    November 1, 2010 12:42 pm

    I loved Halloween when it was a children’s thing. In the US it seems to be turning into an adult festival, with the scarier costumes and overdone decorating of houses….. worse every year! When my kids were little, we went out after dark. Now the trick or treaters are out in the daylight (safer, yes…. but not so thrilling!) or go to shopping malls where the treats are presumed to be safe.

    Having said that, my oldest was about 8 the year Halloween was spoiled forever for us…..We lived just outside Chicago, and a neighbor of ours was one of the victims of the crazy person who tampered with Tylenol, killing several people just before Halloween. I think that was the year the natural scares of Halloween ….. out after dark, talking to strangers, dressing up as someone else…. began to transform into the artificial, over-hyped, out of all proportion (BUT SAFE!) thing we have now. I miss the real Halloween! And I think kids today are missing it, too.

    • dancingbeastie permalink
      November 2, 2010 10:26 am

      What a terrible thing to happen. I think you have hit the nail on the head regarding ‘natural scares’ versus today’s artificial version which, ironically, is the result of real terrors. Very sad.

  8. November 1, 2010 7:36 pm

    Just popping over to say congrats on winning 2 of the Keli Clark cards on my wee giveaway. Please send me an email with your mailing address:)

  9. November 1, 2010 7:47 pm

    Hi Beastie: I will be on the lookout for Ms.Fowlis’ cd’s – as part of our tourism industry we have a music week all around Cape Breton called Celtic Colours and I suspect she has performed there at one time or another as many Scottish performers have.
    I am the other fortunate person who has won Keli Clarke cards – I’m looking forward to them!!! Congratulations to you too!
    Check out my site as I am having a giveaway there during the month of November.

    • dancingbeastie permalink
      November 2, 2010 10:24 am

      Oh wow, how exciting! Thank you so much, Sophia, and well done, Janet! What a coincidence.

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