Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Grumpy old Soul

Well, I thought I’d got all my grumpyness out, but you are right, I couldn’t stay shut up after all. As October freezes gently into autumn, here it comes again - Hallowe’en.

I receive a lot of emails, and read many more, from people who live in the last bastion of history’s refugees and whingers, the Home of the Brave, the Land of the Free. In those emails, now that October has begun, I am increasingly being exhorted to “Have a Happy Hallowe’en”. From being mildly puzzled I am developing a full-on peeve about this.

There is a Northern English and also a Scottish tradition that for children and youths, this night is Mischief Night. For one gloriously silly evening, they might play pranks that on other nights would earn them a swift clip under the ear and a complaint to their parents. Door knockers might be tied together with string, black cotton stretched across streets to knock off people’s hats, one man’s bucket mysteriously appropriated and filled with the potatoes of another, a wheelbarrow run down the street until it tumbled over in the front garden of a third. Signpost arms were turned round, gates were removed from their hinges and hung from tree limbs.

Groups of silly maidens (I was one, once) sat by candlelight or by smelly turnip lanterns and told each other ghost stories. They bobbed for apples with fortunes slipped into them, and cast nutshells and applepeel over their shoulders to discover the initials of future husbands. Perhaps they also used games of patience or more esoteric layouts of cards to forecast their futures. Maybe they even surrounded a table bearing an upturned glass and each placed a finger upon it, in the unlikely belief that it would travel to letter after letter because within the glass, the spirit of a dead person was constrained to answer their whispered trivial questions.

Here’s where the evening reflects its origins, and where I begin to become uneasy.

I was brought up a Christian, albeit I am now a non-practising one in that I don’t go to church and have serious doubts about interpretations of “The Scriptures”. Hallowe’en is, strictly, for non-Christians.

It began as a pagan celebration: the feast of Samhain, the endpoint of the annual sun cycle, the “night between the years”, the end of summer and beginning of winter. In Brittany November 1st is the Day of the Dead, the opening of the Black Month. As such it was a portal to the world of the dead and a mythologically important day for magical occurrences of all kinds. The Christian Church sanitised it into a celebration of past lives as All Souls, All Saints or All Hallows; but a reactionary element continued to celebrate its older meaning. “The night before the Feast of All Hallows” gave us the more modern names, Hallowmas, All Hallows’ Eve or Hallowe’en.

From that point of view alone, Hallowe’en is emphatically not something you should wish someone to have a happy one of, unless you know them to be of the pagan persuasion. And I was frankly furious one year that my University diary, in trying to be politically correct, noted the feast of Samhain but ignored All Saints. Both or neither, please!

Tradition has it that on the Eve of All Saints, evil spirits are abroad. On such a night the good and the decent should wrap up tightly by their firesides to pray all good angels to defend them against the powers of darkness.

With that in mind, I am doubly uncomfortable when I walk through a daytime supermarket and see witches’ hats on sale, along with vampire masks, cloaks and plastic broomsticks. Why should I buy trays of chocolate witches to placate those juvenile Al Capones, the “trick-or-treaters” who will blackmail me on my own doorstep in happy ignorance of the origins of this night of licence?

Get thee hence, Commerce. Do not make mock of the oldest fear of all; the fear of the departed dead.

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