An Cailin Rua
A self-confessed grinch, I dread with my whole being the Christmas season every year, and its false and forced festivities. A few years working in retail and listening to the Christmas CD every day for a quarter of the year while having to drag yourself back to work on St Stephen’s Day will do that to you, I suppose, and Santa seems to have lost my number.
But I live for the autumnal feast of Halloween and its connections to death, darkness and the prospect of meeting a few malevolent spirits roaming the plains on a pitch-black foggy night. What that says about me as a person, I’m not sure, but we won’t dwell on it. The fortnight ahead is probably my favourite of the entire year.
I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but since I was a child, there has always been something wholesome about Halloween. Perhaps it’s because until very recently, it hadn’t been overly commercialised or Americanised. Perhaps it’s the fact that it’s a festival that has its roots in Ireland – a Celtic celebration of the end of the harvest and the transition to the ‘dark season’. Or maybe it’s because it’s one of the few holidays in the calendar year that still feels authentic and grounded in the land, in the elements and in our history.
‘Samhain’ in Celtic times was marked by the lighting of bonfires, which were thought to have cleansing properties, and it was a time of year when the line or veil between our world and the ‘otherworld’ was at its very thinnest and could be more easily crossed – allowing the fairies and the souls of the dead to wander between the two, and when the dead could revisit their homes seeking hospitality.
Even trick-or-treating has its roots in the old traditions of ‘mumming’ and ‘guising’ – much like the St Stephen’s Day tradition of the ‘wren boys’, at Halloween, people in Celtic times went out in costume reciting verse in exchange for food.
As a child growing up, Halloween always meant simple traditions and games; ducking and bobbing for apples, making costumes from bin bags and clothes from the attic, searching for the ring in the barmbrack (and being horrified at the thought of having to get married), feasts of nuts and fruit, autumnal branches and berries, and a night for the telling of old ghost stories by candlelight and hearing about the visits of the banshee locally – something that ensured no-one in the house got any sleep.
It always feels like the generations that went before us had more of these tales to tell; perhaps they had more active imaginations, or perhaps their senses weren’t so dulled with the technology on which we depend so heavily these days, that they were far more in tune with the natural and supernatural world around them.
The Dúchas website, which houses the Folklore Collection of Ireland is a treasure trove of tales of Halloweens of yore; where every household or townland seemed to have a different custom or ‘piseog’, ranging from the sublime to the absolutely bizarre. (I’ll let you research the cabbage stalk ones yourselves.)
Halloween feels like a time when we’re allowed to explore our own creativity more; be it in creating a terrifying costume or make-up carving pumpkins (or turnips) without the pressure of turning up for family or bankrupting yourself while panic-buying the day before. It’s a time to get out and about in nature; learn about the night sky, embrace the bright, cool, crisp mornings and the crunch of leaves under your feet, and enjoy the cosy evenings in.
So maybe the trick-or-treat sweet-fest can’t happen this year, nor the fireworks displays, but there is still lots of scope to get imaginative and celebrate in other ways and create new traditions.
For those of us Halloween lovers who live on our own, well, the prospect of spending a Halloween night alone this year is far less scary than the prospect of spending weeks more in isolation – in fact, the appearance of a stray ghost or spectre might be a very welcome sight indeed!
An Cailin Rua