Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Ghoulies and ghosties...

When I was at primary school, we had a wonderful teacher called Mrs. Griffiths (sadly, no longer with us) who – among many other things – taught us the “Hallowe’en Prayer”…

From ghoulies and ghosties,
And long-legged beasties,
And things that go “bump!” in the night.
Good Lord, deliver us.

The rhyme is of Scots origin, but it is forever imprinted on my mind in the musical lilt of the Welsh Valleys that was so apparent in Mrs. Griffiths’ melifluous voice.

I’ve been thinking about the Hallowe’ens of my youth over the past few days as I spot references to dressing up, trick-or-treat, and news reports that the police in the UK will be adopting a “no tolerance” policy towards people making a nuisance of themselves.

At the risk of sounding like an old fart (again), when I was a lass (you have to imagine this in a Northern accent, in the style of the Monty Python '4 Yorkshiremen' sketch), we never had no trick-or-treat. We just had bobbing for apples – if we were lucky.

The whole imported American concept of Hallowe’en has really only taken hold in the UK since I left, so I find it really strange to think of gangs of 12-year-olds roaming the streets dressed as witches, ghosts, vampires… and fairy princesses (aren’t they s’posed to be scarey?) to menace householders unless they dosh out enough goodies to give the kids a sugar rush that will have them bouncing off the walls until the Christmas onslaught.

Back in MY day, it was a far more enigmatic and creepy night. OK, we didn't exactly lock ourselves in the broom cupboard for the night (well, just that once) but I certainly remember hiding my head under the blankets after a Hallowe'en bedtime story.

Hallowe’en is a shortened form of All Hallows’ Eve (Hallows=Saints) as it's the night before All Saints’ Day on November 1. This was supposed to be one of the few times of the year when spirits can make contact with the physical world and when magic is at its most potent. It was the night when all the ghoulies, ghosties, witches and goblins et al would come out to play for one last blast before the goody-goodies from the Saints’ camp took over.

Not surprisingly, it's yet another example of Christianity absorbing a much earlier Pagan festival in order to win followers in the early years of the Church. Hallowe’en origins lie in an ancient Gaelic festival called Samhain, which celebrated the end of the harvest season. It was the time when the ancient pagans used to take stock of supplies and slaughter livestock for their winter stores. The ancient Gaels also believed that it was night when the worlds of the living and the dead overlapped, allowing the deceased to come back and cause havoc by spreading sickness and damaging crops. Costumes and masks were therefore worn in a bid to placate the spirits by mimicking them.

One year, I decided to conduct a Hallowe’en experiment. Tradition has it that if a young virgin peels an apple (symbol of fertility) anticlockwise, keeping the peel in one unbroken coil, in the front of a mirror at midnight on the night of October 31, her husband-to-be will appear to her.

Mum must have wondered why I so enthusiastically offered to peel a couple of pounds of Bramleys for apple crumble during the day (well, I had to practice, didn’t I?) but come midnight, I managed to peel my apple in one intact snake of peel. And sure enough, a male figure appeared from the shadows behind me - but it was no tall, dark stranger from my future, just dear old Dad coming to tell me that it was well past my bed-time and to go to sleep!

Growing up in England in the '70s & '80s, we were still relatively unsophisticated compared to today's children and Hallowe’en held a thrill of fright and anticipation (a bit like watching Dr Who from behind the sofa), but none of the pallaver we see these days.

It was a simple pleasure that came with the season – along with the scent of bonfires in the air as devoted gardeners burned off their garden waste, the joy of wading through fallen leaves in the park in search of conkers, and coming back to the house after a walk with your cheeks burning from the chill. And just around the corner was the promise of lighting up the skies for Bonfire Night.

Maybe I’m just getting nostalgic in my old age?

Oh well, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
So "Happy Halloween, y'all!"


  1. Reading that verse took me back to my childhood where an uncle of mine used to recite this. And this is Sri Lanka!!! colonial influences obviously. We also do not do Halloween but its nice to read about it anyway.

  2. I love that you peeled the apple in front of the mirror only to see your father (but they do say girls grow up and marry men just like their fathers!)

  3. Gosh this took me right back to all those young girl years...bobbing for apples...wondering about future loves and lives..sparklers on bonfire a Catholic girl our local priest would tut tut over halloween, so we rarely acknowledged it...but as a grown up with children, when our kids were small, every halloween we would go for long walks and tell spooky stories..such lovely memories...happy halloween!

  4. My Scottish friend swears that instead of bobbing for apples you had to take bites out of a scone covered in treacle hanging from a piece of string (the scone, not you!). So I let her organise it for one of my Hallowe'en parties (I did them regularly... as an adult though!).You can imagine the mess it made of the floor... good job I couldn't afford carpet ... *cue violins & Yorkshire accents*

    p.s. fairy princesses scare the hell out of me!

  5. I remember bonfire night being a much bigger thing when I was young. I'm starting to embrace it much more now I have kids of my own - but then I've always liked rites and rituals.

  6. Thanks for visiting my blog and also commenting. I could email you with more information if you could write to me.
    Reading your post once again I did realize that
    Halloween is made so much of - its preceeding All Saints and All Souls Day and you dont even hear of this being mentioned!!! And me in Australia right now! In Sri Lanka not so much All Saints Day but All Souls is very important.