Wednesday, 31 October 2012

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.

Now, 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’ voice.

I’ve been thinking about the Hallowe’ens of my youth over the past few days as I the In ternet goes creepy crazy in anticipation of this evening's antics. I've seen several people I thought I knew transformed into walking pumpkins, my normally benign nephew as a seriously scary looking serial killer bunny, and some of the more budget-minded planning to wrap themselves in toilet paper to play the mummy (which is fine unless it rains...).

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 scary?) 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 and '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, 'Happy Hallowe'en ya'all!'


  1. Nice piece, Mandi. Bonfire Night is supposed to be an anti-Catholic celebratin of the fact that the Papists didn't blow up Parliament, but it ovbiously taps into the Samhain tradition. The Lewes bonfire processions look positively medieval.

  2. Wonderful post. I'm glad to have found you.