Tuesday, November 13, 2007

All Hallow's Eve

Part of the attraction of visiting the United States at this time of year was to experience Hallowe’en in a culture which makes a big deal of it. Much as certain American expressions and phrases capture a snapshot of Britain as it once was, Hallowe’en offers a link to various pre-Christian Celtic and Gaelic autumn festivals, bought over in some form by the Irish and those of Celtic-origin, but which have been largely forgotten on the British Isles. So, in a sense, America offered me the chance to experience remnants of festivals such as Samhain and Nos Galen Gaef which, in their homeland, have been pushed to the peripheral by the likes of the English Reformation and Guy Fawkes.

I used to have a friend at school whose father was something of a Ned Flanders character, and so his poor son was always forbidden from attending any parties with a Hallowe’en type slant.
“It’s a pagan festival! PAGAN!” I would imagine the father’s anguished cries, as he looked fearfully and apologetically heaven-wards, quaking.
It bothered me that he seemed so judgemental of our cultural heritage, so eager for it to be forgotten and condemed as worthless. Didn’t he ever wonder what a happy coincidence it was that Jesus was born slap bang in the middle of various European winter festivals, on exactly the same day gods in the Ishtar and Mithra religions were also celebrating their birthdays? That wasn’t it fortunate that the coming of the messiah could be celebrated right when everyone had traditionally already been having their biggest celebrations anyway, be it in the form of the Roman Empire’s Sol Invictus festival, or the offerings made to Thor in northern Europe as part of Yule? Were, I wondered, Easter Eggs and the Easter Bunny banned from the family home, being such poorly disguised hangovers from pagan celebrations of the coming of spring?

My roundabout point being that all festivals generally hark back to something that preceded it, borrowing and swallowing various aspects and adopting them as their own (a more recent example, relatively speaking, being bonfires at Guy Fawkes, which were carried over from the bone-fires of the autumn festivals). It’s why, as a non-Christian, I can celebrate Christmas without feeling at all hypocritical, safe in the knowledge that people have been doing so for hundreds of years under the guises of various of religions, with Christianity being the latest in the line. And that’s why I wanted to see Hallowe’en in America – because it’s a snapshot of how things once were, albeit in a disguised (pun acknowledged) form.

My day started off with an event which genuinely can be classed as a new addition to the day’s events. At the local park, the dog park was hosting a “Howloween” costume party. Yes, for the dogs. Issac the Beagle, who I was staying with, donned his Cockerel suit, and we set off. Enroute, I speculated that perhaps this actually was a remnant of European autumn festivals, which often incorporated cattle, but I couldn’t really convince myself.

Any fears Issac had that he would be the only one dressed up were allayed on our arrival, where we were greeted by the sight of some forty to fifty dogs, decked out in all manner of costumes, charging round the enclosure. He immediately sprinted off to find someone to chase him, occasionally baying with his excitement.

Hugh Hefner keeps an eye on proceedings

The Cockerel suit was soon comprehensively caked with mud, and the above fellow reminded me it was time to head out of the city to acquire a couple of items for another autumn custom, which has been tacked onto Hallowe’en.

Carved pumpkins – or, as it once was, turnips and swedes – to make Jack-o’lanterns are now such an integral part of Hallowe’en that the original tale of Stingy Jack’s trip to Hell is long forgotten, but it’s a perfect illustration of how festivals are very flexible in customs and practices they adopt.

We arrived at a country farm, and pumpkins stretched out in every direction. The abundance just made choosing all the harder. A pumpkin, I had previously thought, was much like any other pumpkin, give or take its size. But here I found myself confronted with various shapes and colours, and lost myself to this array for some time.

Later that evening walking home from a trip into town, I was surprised to see children going from shop to shop to trick or treat, and each shop – regardless of its trade – seemed to be prepared with huge buckets of sweets and chocolate. In a big city though, I reasoned, where no-one’s front door is onto the street, there’s not much alternative. I bought a drink, and managed to get a Butterfinger thrown in too. The kids had started appearing early in the day, out in their costumes being escorted by parents as early as midday. In some neighbourhoods, preparations were under way for block-parties. Everyone seemed very cheerful, even for New York.

Arriving home I set to carving my pumpkin, inbetween occasional calls from children who lived inside the building. I’d only carved a pumpkin once before, and still found the sludge and smell an alien and not entirely pleasant experience. Afterwards though, much like a trip to the gym, the sense of achievement made it seem worthwhile.

A trip to Greenwich Village that night was something of an eye-opener. The parade was just finishing, and the streets were packed with thousands of people, all decked out in elaborate costumes. I would recommend that anyone who doesn’t mind a crowd tries to experience it at least once.

I later found myself at a party being held by Harvard graduates who were equal to me in years and yet already in possession of exclusive Manhattan property. Vodka though, I find, is a great leveller, so after a number of large measures I let the whys-and-wherefores slip from my mind, and reflected that Hallowe’en, done right, is a great and sorely missed day.


Afe said...

I used to observe the days of the week until I found out they were all named after pagan gods.

Anonymous said...

It's so interesting to look at traditions and trace their history. And your pumpkins are truly awesome!

Shane said...

Well, Cilla, I'm not sure that I'm making the right decision, but I'd like to choose... Pumpkin Number Three! (Crowd cheers) (Shane ponders... 'Pumpkin Number Three'... Wasn't that a film with David Thewlis?)