Hallow E’en for grown-ups. A guide.
A woman came into my London coffee shop the other day, dressed in a long, ragged black dress and carrying a broomstick. Let’s not get picky about dates but ask people when Hallow E’en is and most will have to stop and think. Not so in Ireland where it all began. Why, in my boarding school, we actually got a whole day off school for it. Samhain, it’s called, in Irish, meaning festival or gathering. It’s also the Irish word for the month of November.
But let’s be clear about this. Samhain is a glorious pagan feast, a three-day blinder which marked the beginning of winter, when the boundaries between the living and the dead, between this world and the other were blurred, when ancestors were honoured and blackguards cursed, when people met to bawl out songs and jump over bonfires, when the portals to the fairy world were open to any and everyone and much fun was had.
And now look at it: a shameful commercial display of shop windows that get it all wrong. Windows full of ghoulish masks, devils’ pitchforks and terrifying witches, all colour-coded orange and black – wherever that came from.
But people, check it out. In the land of the Celt, the underworld is a place of subterfuge, laughter and excess. Good things come forth from the earth. And no, women are not witches. True, we may appear unknowable. After all, subverting the hierarchy is the name of the game. But fearsome ugly creatures intent on frightening little children? Never. Unless, of course, they come to my door on Hallow E’en, shaking their good cause collecting box at me, at which point I pull on my most fearsome mask and frighten the shit out of them. On Hallow E’en, you get apples and nuts and that’s it. Or possibly a slice of barmbreac – the traditional fruit bread wherein is hidden a Poundstore wedding ring which foretells an up and coming romance.
And another thing: in Ireland, we used to spend a good week carving a candle lamp out of a turnip or swede as we call them. Now, what do you get?No, I won’t mention the aborted baby turnips. Instead, we get large alien pumpkins. Precarved.
The rot set in round about the 8th century when those men in frocks – OK, popes and bishops – decided to take over Samhain. November is the month of the dead, they declared. So, in the Christian calendar we have November 1 dedicated to virgins and martyrs and those holier than you and I and which is called All Saints or All Hallows. Then we have November 2 dedicated to a lower class of dead – All Souls. But before all that, we have the last vestige of paganism: the eve of All Hallows or, bingo, Hallow E’en.
And because women were feared by the men in frocks, they were demonised just as, much earlier Medea, demonised by Euripides, was characterised as a witch who administered a mind-altering drug to Jason when in fact she was a healer. And now, only a few weeks ago, the Prime Minister of Australia was demonised by that most unreconstructed of elected representatives, Tony Abbott who, garlanded with posters, urged Australians to Ditch the Witch. Bitch-witch, what does it matter so long as the flames of hell consume her? And yep, those old flames were there on the posters.
So what is Hallow E’en really about? Pubs and clubs think it’s about getting as many young people onto their premises and as drunk as possible so that they stumble about the streets half cut, dressed as nuns with their boobs hanging out. Teens think it’s about frightening old men by letting off bangers as they totter across the street on their zimmer frames and small children think it’s about money and sweets.
It’s none of these. Pagans of the world, cast aside your fear of the unknown. Get down and dirty in the underworld. Become an honorary Celt and celebrate the moon, the night, the dark. Raise a glass to your ancestors. Make love with abandon. Write poetry. Subvert those set above you – your elected representative, your boss, your bishop. October 31st is yours, for one night only.