Attached to my fridge is a black and white photograph from Hallowe’en 1978. It’s of me and my two sisters standing in the back garden wearing cobbled together costumes. M. is draped in a white sheet with two holes the size of 50p pieces roughly cut out at eye level; the cloth gathered at her waist so she doesn’t catch her step on the hem and become the lesser-known tripping, clumsy ghost. She’s flanked by two witches: me on one side, A. on the other, each of us swathed in black, home-made pointy hats balanced atop sensible pageboy haircuts. Clearly it has been too much of a challenge to fasten a brim to the conical hats and instead we’ve made incisions along the band at gaps of one inch; it results in an odd little paper grass skirt where the hat rim meets the top of my head. A. is clad in a dad’s old teaching gown – like those worn in ‘Goodbye, Mr, Chips’ – and I’m wrapped in something indeterminate, dark. I can see a definite giggle trying to burst through my witch’s scowl. A. has abandoned character and is smiling sweetly at the camera, and wee M.’s hand is stretched out from beneath the sheet, grasping; her fingers spread in a pleading gesture that might be saying, “Guys, I can’t breathe under here!” Either in the taking or in the developing of the photograph something has gone awry, and the photo is sliced through with horizontal white streaks, bringing a supernatural quality to it, leading me to wonder if we really were on the edge of something paranormal.
I joke, of course, (or do I?) for Hallowe’en was big in our house and we followed many of the old traditions. There would be a big apple tart (or three) with a coin a ring and a button, each encased in tinfoil and blanketed in stewed apple. If your slice contained a small silver parcel, you would lick it clean then tentatively unwrap it to see if, in the future, you would be rich, get married or (nobody wanted the button) be left on the shelf. Everyone dressed up, not as anything gruesome, mostly ghosts, witches and banshees (a mournful, keening spirit in the shape of a hooded old lady whose cry breaks the silence of the night, portending death). We had sparklers and indoor table fireworks, little cones of resin to which you would set a flame and watch it grow, worm like, into a twisted tentacle. An apple would be hung from a string on the lintel of the door, then, arms behind your back, each child would take their turn in trying to bite it. Towards the end of the night, my mum would tell old Irish folk tales about apparitions, noises, things moving of their own accord, the shenanigans of the little folk – fairies. A stranger would knock at the door and enter, stage managed by my mum, he or she would become part of the drama and we would gasp in giddy wonder and slightly frivolous fear as to what would happen next. Of course, she never claimed her stories were true, but she never said they weren’t.
Some think of Hallowe’en as a commercial import, a celebration of all things ghastly, an opportunity for children to sugar-load. It seems to have lost its way to become some of that, but it’s an Irish export stretching back two millennia. In ancient Celtic Ireland today’s festival was called ‘Samhain’. Falling just about halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, it marked the end of the harvest season; communities gathered to take a deep bow before winter and prepare for the hastening in of the darker segment of the year. At Samhain, people believed that the division between this world and the ‘otherworld’ was at its thinnest, and that this was the time (for good or bad) that spirits could pass through. It was time for remembering; for honouring ancestors whilst warding off harmful spirits. And it was in the warding off that people wore costumes and masks to disguise themselves as harmful spirits and thus avoid harm (as they say, the best form of defence is an offence!). Bonfires and food played a large part in Samhain festivities with food prepared for the living and the dead. The extra food (given the dead were in no position to eat it) was shared with the less well off.
Sound familiar, doesn’t it? So many elements of Samhain were present in the Hallowe’en I knew as a child, which was nothing like the Hammer House of Horrorsthat it has become conflated with today – a guy in a hood with a sword, fake blood running down his face couldn’t be further from the roots of Hallowe’en. The Hallowe’en of Samhain is a gentle nod to those we can no longer see or hear; it’s a gathering in of the darkness ahead; it’s a time to share food and stories, mixing in a little theatrics to bring it all to life. Watch out tonight, though, for it’s that one day in the year when the veil is very thin…..
The Little Ghost, By Edna St. Vincent Millay
I knew her for a little ghost
That in my garden walked;
The wall is high—higher than most—
And the green gate was locked.
And yet I did not think of that
Till after she was gone—
I knew her by the broad white hat,
All ruffled, she had on.
By the dear ruffles round her feet,
By her small hands that hung
In their lace mitts, austere and sweet,
Her gown’s white folds among.
I watched to see if she would stay,
What she would do—and oh!
She looked as if she liked the way
I let my garden grow!
She bent above my favourite mint
With conscious garden grace,
She smiled and smiled—there was no hint
Of sadness in her face.
She held her gown on either side
To let her slippers show,
And up the walk she went with pride,
The way great ladies go.
And where the wall is built in new
And is of ivy bare
She paused—then opened and passed through
A gate that once was there.