2-Nov-2015: What are you doing for Hallowe'en?
A few days ago, a friend asked me, “What are you doing for Hallowe’en?”. It got me musing on this recent cultural import, which has all but totally eclipsed our home-grown autumnal celebration of Bonfire Night, which, with its ritualized persecution of the Popish plotters, ought to keep alive the religious divisions of the 16th century in the hearts of every 7-year-old.
Well, there’s plenty to love about American cultural hegemony, especially its music, books and, for the last decade or so, superb dramas made for TV, to name but a few, but the popular American interpretation of Hallowe’en is not one of them. The roots of this day run deep into folklore and then with Christian teaching in relation to All Hallows Day grafted on top, and these certainly precede the events of 1605, but the glitzy, costumed, child-oriented practice is an interpretation that owes more to powerful market forces turning Hallowe’en into just another “holiday”, one free from religious connotations so that everyone can get involved, but, above all, another opportunity to sell stuff, with added impetus of pester power, and a good month before “Black Friday”.
Genuinely though, it’s a marvellous time of year, but for me, one to muse on the passing of time, to consider with a sense of awe the natural forces that can reshape the land in northern latitudes, in a matter of a few months, from the sumptuousness of July to the dank days of early November. However, the current version of mass market Hallowe’en can, and is applied anywhere: for example, Florida, California, Australia, where they continue to bask in the total opposite of northern European autumnal weather, which strips the event of its central signifier, which is the darkening of the days and the encroaching cold and damp; heck, you don’t need any of that, you don’t need the mysterious, the chill, the sense of the uncanny, which is the preserve of the mind turning inwards, propelled by myth and stories, when you can dress up as zombie and eat sweets until you’re sick.
It wasn’t always a class thing, but I suspect that this newer Hallowe’en, with its fancy-dress elements is a mostly middle class preserve. Every Saturday, I drive down Abbey Road, passed that zebra crossing, and this last Saturday was no different except for the fact that the whole of St John’s Wood had been turned into one enormous fancy-dress party with scores of costumed young children being chaperoned along, mostly by their mums it has to be said, each clutching an orange plastic bucket. Houses had been festooned with cobwebs out of a can and some of the houses had sophisticated lighting effects in a vain attempt to heighten the mood. I firmly believes that children need a sense of mystery, in fact it’s probably essential to the development of a healthy imagination, but dressing-up as Harry Potter and being led from door to door in middle class neighbourhoods in an orgy of barely-suppressed selfishness and prospective tooth decay is going to do nothing to further that.
I sound like a curmudgeon and have to plead guilty as charged, but here’s the defence. I was a child in the 1960s and Hallowe’en was an event, but low-key one and home-spun and nothing to rival Bonfire Night. It fell to an “old”, childless couple, John and Agnes Dawson (they were probably only in their fifties), who lived nearby and had the kids from surrounding streets round to their house on the 31st for apple bobbing, a brazier in the guardian, music on their tremendous gramophone, treacle toffee and ghost stories read aloud. Had they been alive now, they’d likely need to be CRB-checked before hosting such an event. A few days later, the same lovely couple would host the bonfire on a scrap of waste land adjoining their house; there was always plenty of wood to be scavenged from slum clearances in 1960s Rochdale. The bonfires were always well-attended with the kids from the local community and their extended families; you brought your own fireworks, especially my grandad Fred, who, it was always said, was in his “second childhood” on such nights. The slums have long gone, along with the strong communities that were already under attack in the 1960s from the forces of social mobility. However, this is all the more reason to keep alive some traditions that are going to properly fire a youngster’s imagination to oppose the commercial pressures that want to turn this into another staging post between July 4th and Thanksgiving. There’s plenty to teach your children: the nature of seasons (I recall poring over the Ladybird book, "What to look for in Autumn"); reverence for the natural world; the sense of mystery that is evoked so powerfully by the darkening days; the power of story telling. There are many rich traditions to draw upon in literature and art, don’t buy into someone else’s idea of what this time of year is about, especially those who have something to sell. I feel blessed that my formative memories of this wonderful season were made then and somewhat sad for the youngsters being brought up on this Hollywood-style, pick’n’mix-fuelled event, with all its dressed-up celebrities clowning around on the media circuit, but denuded of its age-old significance and stripped of the darkness, fear and the presence of mortality that is supposed to be at its very core.