Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween: Ireland's weird contribution to globalisation

As a child in rural Ireland, Halloween was always an exciting time of year. Autumn was drawing in around us, each day darker and colder, often wet and stormy. Far from the streetlights of the town, we country people ceded the land to darkness earlier every night; wild and indifferent Nature was in ascension.

So with Halloween we played on the natural thrilling creepiness of the growing dark, while challenging it with our noisy and bright indoor parties.

Lacking the pumpkins of North America, we carved eyes and gaping mouths into turnips. The dense, heavy root was difficult work; parents watched nervously as we hacked at them with kitchen knives. Like American children we would slip a small candle inside, and carry it, wild with excitement, out into the darkness of the front garden, to flicker and sizzle with the odd stench of burnt turnip. Older siblings might hoot and groan ghostly noises to freak us younger ones out, sending us sprinting back into the comfort of the lighted house. Invisible in the darkness, the trees sighed on their own in the night breeze.

Another game involved a large plastic tub filled with water, in which my parents would place apples, monkey nuts, and a few coins. The children held their hands behind their backs and took turns to try seizing the fruit with their teeth alone. Ambitious older kids learned to hold their breath, duck right under water and nudge the coins between their teeth; any money withdrawn from the water this way could be kept. My face feels clouded and uncomfortable just remembering the pressure of water on nose, the unintended inhalation followed by spluttering and the triumphant spitting of coin into hands.

Chop the Cherry was a less stressful game which my mother started by pouring a small mound of flour, on the tip of which she placed a sweet cherry. We were given blunt knifes to cut and remove sections of the conical flour, trying to destabilise the heap without causing the cherry to fall. Whoever knocked the cherry had to pluck it from the flour from his or her teeth: rendered vulnerable to mischievous siblings who might pat their face into the flour.

For days before Halloween we worked on masks, usually made from the cardboard packaging of breakfast cereals, with eyes cut out and horrible features and scars drawn on. Ambitious children might beg for bits of wool to thread into the top as crude hair.

We ate a kind of cake called barm brack, in which my mother would mix a ring and a coin as a form of fortune-telling: whoever found the ring would soon be married, whoever found the coin would become rich. I forget if there were others, though some traditions include rather dark alternatives.

We never went trick or treating, a tradition that was known to us only from American movies and British comic books. The house was not decorated for Halloween, either, though we often drew creepy pictures of monsters, witches and ghosts. Aware that American and British children were having a different kind of Halloween, I presumed as a child that we were somehow following them, that our turnips were the lesser imitations of American pumpkins.
Far from it. Modern Halloween is the strange descendent of an Irish pre-Christian festival of the dead, Samhain, when the spirit world was believed exceptionally close to our own. Halloween was carried by Irish and Scottish migrants in the 19th century to the US, where they substituted tough turnips for the fat pumpkins of today. The meanings of pagan religious ritual were blurred, first by Christianisation, then by export and commercialisation. The festival of the dead became a festival of fear.

So Halloween today is a weird hybrid tradition indeed. Tonight I have children trick or treating outside my door in Dublin, following the Americanised version of an ancient Irish tradition. When people scattered around the world celebrate Halloween with masks and pumpkins, they are celebrating a little part of ancient Ireland, reinterpreted and altered beyond recognition. This is globalisation and modernity: seizing the tradition of one land, transforming it utterly, and depositing it everywhere.

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