Friday 31 October 2008

In defense of Hallowe'en

In recent years there has been a disturbing new development in that popular pastime amongst the terminally joyless, the criticism of Hallowe'en. Once such wittering was largely the province of fundamentalist Christians who objected to the festival on the grounds of its oh-so-shameless paganism. (Of course, as we shall see Hallowe'en is as much a Christian invention as a heathen one but such people have probably only read one book in their entire lives and thus remain blissfully ignorant of those persistent annoyances known as facts. Even if they were aware, said origins are Catholic and so would be regarded as equally tantamount to Satanism amongst those of an Evangelical persuasion.)

However, this ubiquitous and shrill minority has seemingly relinquished its position to a new species of carper, the habitual chauvinist. Amidst the increasing hysteria and paranoia of the British populace, Hallowe'en is now regarded as something of a charter for that most dreaded of imagined bugbears, "anti-social behaviour" and in the dreary diatribes which so often accompany these fears, the same canard is repeated time and time again. Namely that Hallowe'en is an American import and as proud upholders of national tedium, we must reject this vulgar infiltration forthwith.

Take these words from Times columnist Bryan Appleyard: "Does anybody, in this country, actually want Halloween? Last night I saw grim-faced mothers marching along the road with brats wrapped in sheets crudely marked with felt-tips. This is an American show. We don't like it, we never used to do it and we don't have to now." Quite aside from the fact that the answer to his initial question amongst anybody less nakedly misanthropic would be a resounding 'Yes,' you have to wonder how the writer for a national newspaper can justify such complete obliviousness to historical fact, even in a mere blog post.

Fortunately, like their predecessors in the sport of Hallowe'en censure, the complaint of Appleyard and his ilk bears scant relation to the truth of the matter. However, the actual lineage of Hallowe'en is something of a tangled skein and demands our further attention. Modern orthodoxy amongst neo-pagans and popular historians holds that Hallowe'en derives from the ancient Celtic quarter-day of Samhain, an acknowledgment of the turning of the seasons and thus a liminal time at which the boundaries between the Otherworld and our own lose their definition. Equally, as decay creeps over the world with the onset of winter, the timing of Samhain is said to have represented a natural point for the remembrance of the dead.

Yet this foundation myth is not quite true. Whilst medieval sources undoubtedly confirm the celebration of Samhain over many centuries in Ireland and amongst early Irish immigrants to Scotland, there is less evidence for such observance in other late bastions of Celtic culture such as the Isle of Man and Wales. Hence describing Samhain as a major pan-Celtic festival is somewhat disingenuous. Moreover, the overt association of Samhain with the dead in the pre-Christian period is somewhat suspect and whilst all the quarter-days were regarded as times when the veil wore thin, there is little evidence that Samhain was any more significant in this respect.

We owe the assumption that it was to that notorious Victorian mythologiser, Sir James Frazer, who argued that because the Catholic feast of remembrance All Souls Day took place at the same time as Samhain, the former was probably a Christianisation of the latter. Whilst it is certainly true that Christianity subsumed many older traditions in the interests of continuity, there is no actual account of Samhain being celebrated as anything more than pastoral juncture, when the harvest had been stored and the livestock moved to winter pasture, a rare period of rest when merry-making was at its most convenient. Frazer's assertion may indeed be true, but it is more of a hypothesis than an established fact.

Just as instructive yet overly neglected in tracing the antecedents of Hallowe'en is the Christian festival of Hallowtide, an event which encompassed both All Saints Day on November 1 and All Souls Day on November 2. The latter was specifically for the remembrance of the departed and was linked to the former by the uniquely Catholic conviction that saints could act as intercessors for deceased relatives whose souls were yet confined to Purgatory awaiting judgment for their earthly sins. During the Middle Ages it was a substantial festival throughout Christendom and Britain was no exception, only rejecting the feast with the Reformation and Protestantism's denial of Purgatory and saintly intercession.

However, whilst Hallowtide ceased to be an official observance, many folk customs associated with it endured, especially in the rural north and west of Britain where Catholicism covertly survived to a greater extent and where the whims of authority were taken less seriously or were harder to enforce. Two strands of such tradition are especially illuminating with regard to modern practices associated with Hallowe'en and which amply demonstrate the authenticity of this celebration in the British Isles, long before its undoubted growth in popularity in the United States.

The first of these is the tradition of soul cakes, noted as early as the late 17th Century by John Aubrey in Shropshire, and subsequently recorded in many nearby counties until the late Victorian period. The children of the poor would tour local households on All Souls Day where they would receive a 'soul cake', upon their recitation of the rhyme "A soul cake, a soul cake, have mercy on all Christian souls for a soul cake." In vernacular Catholic lore, every cake thus donated represented a soul freed from Purgatory. The religious significance of the act was later largely forgotten and it simply became an opportunity for the poor to legitimately beg charity from their wealthier neighbours.

Hallowtide was also always a time associated with the practice of mumming or guising, when locals would dress up in outlandish clothing and don masks or paint their faces to rove the local neighbourhood causing mischief. Such a practice wasn't unique to the festival but occurred on any significant occasion throughout the year, including Christmas, May Day, Midsummer and various saints' days. However, mumming has long been associated with licentious behaviour, owing to the high spirits of those involved and the relative degree of anonymity provided by the outfits. Thus, a selection of complaints from various corners of the British Isles can be found from the 17th Century onwards.

On the Isle of Skye, boys would tour the neighbourhood with their faces painted black and at each place they visited, the host would be expected to provide them with victuals whilst the guests were permitted to overrun the house, sitting where they pleased, generally cavorting and ignoring the owners. Meanwhile, in Montgomeryshire, the 'lowest order of working men' were known for adorning themselves in sheepskin and masks and parading through the streets, frightening children and being 'impertinent to adults' for which trespass they were often 'put down to a great extent by the police.'

According to the estimable Ronald Hutton, "in nineteenth century Cromarty youths worked exactly the same trick and sought for a lone woman to seize so that they could drag her in a cart over the rough stones, amid screams and roars of laughter... On the east coast of Sutherland children at the end of the century had a varied repertoire of tricks, including burning cabbage stalks through key-holes, stopping up the tops of chimneys with turves, letting horses out of stables, and pretending to break windows by smashing bottles against adjacent walls." From these examples it is clear that those who today bemoan the anti-social behaviour associated with trick-or-treating should in fact consider themselves extremely fortunate.

A fine example of the union of soul-caking with mumming to create an obvious precursor of the modern practice of trick-or-treat is found in the High Peak of Derbyshire, where the festival was known locally as "Cakin Neet" and celebrated on November 1. Here it was the custom for children to disguise themselves in masks and go round the neighbourhood, stopping at each house to chant 'Copper, copper, cake, cake." It was then the duty of the occupant to correctly identify each child. If they failed, they were expected to offer pennies, whilst if they succeeded, they provided parkin. According to local historians, the tradition dates back several centuries.

Thus, whilst Hallowe'en might be a composite tradition which only fully cohered as we know it in the Twentieth Century, derived from vestigial remembrances of the numinous Celtic quarter-days, a Christian feast of the dead and the folk custom of mumming, what is abundantly clear is that its heritage lies firmly within the British Isles and that to dismiss it as an American import is the grossest kind of ignorance, stemming entirely from a predictable species of knee-jerk jingoism and affected piety. All that Hallowe'en owes to our cousins across the Atlantic is the standardisation of the date to October 31, the phrase 'trick-or-treat' and the use of pumpkins rather than turnips for jack-o-lanterns.

However, given that British antecedents tended to occur in rural areas and in the north and west of the country, what I suspect Bryan Appleyard really means when he says "we never used to do it" is that London never used to do it, which once again proves that our capital is located in the least interesting region of the isle. Of course, the metropolitan elite have long sneered at what they perceive as coarse country traditions and like those complaining about anti-social behaviour at this time of year, he merely proves that there is nothing new under the sun. The disapproval of such people is apparently as integral to Hallowe'en as bobbing for apples or the dreaded trick-or-treat.

Clarke, David - "Britain's Pagan Heritage" (1995)
Clarke, David - "Supernatural Peak District" (2000)
Clarke, David & Roberts, Andy - "Twilight of the Celtic Gods" (1996)
Hutton, Ronald - "The Pagan Religions of the British Isles" (1993)
Hutton, Ronald - "Stations of the Sun" (1996)
Ross, Anne - "Folklore of the Scottish Highlands" (2000)
Whitlock, Ralph - "In Search of Lost Gods" (1979)

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