Walking past a Figueira primary school yesterday at what must have been mid-morning break time, I was struck by the noise, as usual. Nowadays children everywhere seem to play much more noisily than ever they used to. Were we all repressed by the “children should be seen and not heard” thing? Is it modern parenting? Do they watch so much on-screen noise that they feel the need to emulate or at least compete? Goodness knows.
More particularly I was impressed by the hallowe’en costumes. I was very tempted to take some photos but you have to be so careful these days. I didn’t want indignant parents and teachers chasing me down the road as if I were the wicked witch of who knows where. But just about every child was dressed up as something otherworldly: ghosts, witches, red devils, ghouls, zombies, skeletons, you name it, it was there ... Hallowe’en!
So I decided to do a little digging into what has become a whole industry of commercially produced costumes, Youtube videos of how to carve a pumpkin, Hallowe’en greetings cards and lots of people busy partying in a way we did not do 50 years ago. Anything and everything is an excuse for a party, so why not Hallowe’en? At least it’s been around a long time.
Of course it all began with the Celts and the celebration of Samhain, on 31st of October, bringing in their new year on November Ist. I doubt they called the months October and November - that came later - but it marked the ending of anything remotely resembling summer and the beginning of winter and its short, dark days and long, cold nights. And in the crack between the old year and the new, on the night of the 31st spirits and ghosts were around, getting into houses and causing mischief.
The presence of all these spirits supposedly made it easier for druids to make predictions and, of course, they needed a bit of ceremony and hoohah to go with that. So bonfires were lit and people dressed up in animal masks, some of that to frighten away any malign spirits who had slipped through the crack between the worlds of the living and the dead. Fires in individual houses were extinguished on “samhain”, to be relit with brands from the communal ritual bonfires the next morning, bringing good fortune and protection for the household for the new year.
They like to go on a lot about samhain in Galicia, claiming that their benign witches, “meigas”, are part of their Celtic heritage. Which is odd as most of the records say that the Celtic lands were mostly Ireland, Wales, Scotland and the north of France. That’s why there is a connection between the minority languages of those countries, while gallego is most definitely a Latin-based language. It’s hard to prove or disprove Galicia’s Celtic heritage and if it keeps them happy to be Celts, then let them be so.
When the Romans came along they combined samhain with a couple of festivals of their own. If you can’t stamp out local culture incorporate it into your own, give it a new name and gradually the locals think they always had your festivals. The Roman ones were Feralia, a day in late October commemorating the passing of the dead. And the second was a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. Her symbol was the apple, hence such traditions as bobbing for apples and peeling apples and throwing he peel over your shoulder to see if it will form the initials of the man your are to marry one day.
(I love these guess-who-you-will-wed traditions. As children, when we had plum pie we would line up the plum stones and count them - tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, richman, poorman, beggarman, thief - to predict what sort of husband we would get.
And even the skipping rhymes had romantic connotations:-
There’s a party on the hill. Will you come?
Bring your own bread and butter and a bun.
So-and-so will be there, kissing such-a-body on a chair,
O U T spells out!
There you go.)
And then came Christianity and a bit more cultural appropriation took place. In 609 A.D. Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome in honour of Christian martyrs and so the feast of All Martyrs Day came into being. This was in May but when Pope Gregory III had his turn he expanded the festival to include all the saints as well and moved the feast to November 1st. And by the 9th century Christianity had largely spread to all Celtic lands and blended Celtic festivals into Christian celebrations. Even the timing of Christmas and Easter are influenced by this. I even wonder about Guy Fawkes Night - bonfires, fun and games, even a tradition of going round playing tricks on Mischief Night, November 4th. Hmmm!?
When I was a child and we built our bonfire for Guy Fawkes Night, we always had a guy to burn on the bonfire. Some children wheeled their guys around for a couple of weeks before Bonfire Night in old prams or on bogies, asking anyone and everyone for “A penny for the guy”, money to be spent on fireworks, especially “bangers” for Mischief Night. Disappointingly my mother would never allow us to do such a thing, which she regarded as parentally-sanctioned begging.
No doubt she would feel the same about “Trick or Treat”.
The whole “Trick or Treat” thing might be the result of November 2nd being dubbed All Souls” Day, with parades in medieval England. Poor people would beg for food and wealthier folk would prepare “soul cakes” to give to them in return for a promise to pray for deceased relatives.
As well as that, and reverting a little to more pagan rituals, food would be left out on doorsteps on All Hallows’ Eve, now called Hallowe’en, to tempt the ghosts and spirits to feast and therefore not enter houses and maybe interfere with attempts at fortune telling and matchmaking. Pumpkins on doorsteps?
And now the dressing up to frighten off evil spirits, leaving food out to tempt them, providing food for the poor of the parish has oddly morphed into the very American “Trick or Treat” ceremony, no longer the domain of naughty big kids (we once had our front door graffitied for refusing to give a treat to a large teenager) but sanitised into mums and sometimes dads escorting their cute little kids in cute fancy dress round the neighbourhood to ask for sweets from all the neighbours.
A curious custom at the best of times but especially now that we are so concerned about childhood obesity.
Our daughter tells us she “trick or treat”-proofed her house, by making it look as if there was nobody at home, while they sat in a back room watching Hallowe’en movies, the little one dressed as an evil fairy princess!!!