By Sarah Pridgeon
It’s fitting that Halloween be a perfect example of the parallel universe in which I now live. Everything seems the same on the surface, but scratch and you’ll find spooky differences all the way down.
In modern Britain, we celebrate the day of witches, ghouls and skeletons in a similar manner to the U.S., but with considerably less glamour. Our celebrations are meager in comparison to the relish and style of yours, which is probably to avoid undue fussing.
We enjoy a carved pumpkin, for instance, but we got the idea from you guys and you’ll see far fewer of them. They’ll only have been shaped into an artistic design if there’s real talent in the household.
In fact, my fondest memory of American Halloween was the day my dad-in-law brought home a pumpkin, tool kit and book of designs for me to try – the idea of readily available carving aids was both novel and exciting. My fumblefingers were able to shape a half decent bat in that squash, which would never have been achieved if I’d been left to my own devices.
We trick-or-treat, but not much. We dress up in costumes, but only if we’re below voting age or heading to what will probably be the only Halloween party in a ten-mile radius.
We certainly don’t have an entire industry dedicated to finding this year’s theme – if you don’t want to make your own, you’ll have to head to the same fancy dress store you’d visit at any other time of year and choose from the same selection. If you leave it too late, you’ll be forced to dress up as Santa.
Scattered throughout the streets, you’ll see that one or two of us decorate with cobwebs and witch hats, but our efforts are not even half-hearted compared to yours. It’s a shame, really, for a holiday with such creative possibilities.
I read a story last week about a New Jersey couple whose scene depicting a car pinning a zombie against a tree was so realistic that locals kept calling 911. In Britain, it’s a novelty to see a broomstick.
It wasn’t always this way – in fact, Halloween has its origins on my home shores. Once upon a time, in a land far from here, it was a Celtic festival by the name of Samhain (which is pronounced “sah-win”, because the folk who lived in Britain, Ireland and France in ancient times were terrible at spelling).
Samhain was seen as a time when the boundaries between this world and the next could be crossed, which meant an easy hop for spirits and fairies. These easily angered visitors had to be appeased if the locals were to survive through the winter, so offerings were left out for them and places were set for the souls of lost kin at the dinner table.
This was the cornerstone of the festival: if you did not leave a “treat” for the spirits, they would “trick” you to express their annoyance. You can already see today’s festivities coming together, can you not?
Many dressed up as these Aos Sí, the remnants of pagan gods and nature spirits, and went from house to house in their costumes, reciting verses in exchange for food. Halloween was the night for mischief and evil spirits, some of whom liked nothing better than to play tricks on the living, so an additional reason to wear a costume was to hide from their tomfoolery or scare them away altogether.
The pagans also used nuts and apples to divine the future – this supernatural day on which the veils between worlds are thin was believed to be a great time for fortune telling. Incidentally, this practice combined with the Roman harvest feast of Pomona, in which apples were used to discover the identity of one’s future spouse, is thought to be the origin of apple bobbing.
During the event, sacred bonfires kept the night lit and the Druids are said to have burned crops and animals as sacrifices to their deities. As the festivities died down, the Celts lit their hearth fires from those bonfires as protection from the winter ahead. In some places, burning hay was flung into the air to scare witches or prevent their broomsticks from landing.
Pumpkins weren’t yet a thing, but turnips were: particularly in Scotland, these root vegetables were carved into faces. This came partly from the legend of Irish Jack, a stingy drunk who tricked the Devil into climbing an apple tree and carved the sign of the cross to prevent him from climbing back down until he swore he would never come after ol’ Jack.
When Jack passed on, he was turned away at the gates of Heaven; true to his word, the Devil turned him back too and threw a coal at him as he left. As Jack was carrying a turnip at the time, he put the coal inside and has been roaming the earth ever since with his makeshift lantern.
All of this festivity began two thousand years ago, before Christianity spread its influence. By the 9th century, Catholic traditions had begun to mix with Celtic – some say intentionally, at the behest of Pope Gregory I, who instructed his missionaries to make use of the customs and beliefs of the people he hoped to convert rather than try to wipe them out.
Thus Samhain was united with the festival of the saints and became All Hallows Eve, and from there it became Halloween. New customs were added, such as “soul cakes”; children would beg for these fruitcakes or caraway seed buns from door to door along with money to distribute to the poor.
And from there it became the popular event we love today – some of our cultures more than others. As I can’t help but be seduced by the jubilant mood when Halloween comes to these parts, I’m happy to join in with the pumpkin obsession. Maybe next year, I’ll even remember to come up with a costume before October 31 morning dawns.