Halloween, Oiche Samhain. In its original form ‘as Gaeilge’, the name holds a hint of the magic and mystical mayhem that to me is what today, the 31st of October is all about. Of all our feastdays, Halloween is the one that links us most closely with our ancient Celtic and Pagan past. Today carries echoes of ritual and belief stretching back over hundreds and hundreds of years. Halloween speaks to a very deep and primitive part of my soul. I love it and always have.
Nowadays a lot of our Halloween traditions and customs have been overlaid with American style elaborate decorations and costumes. The old cry of “have ya any apples or nuts” has been replaced by the chorus of “trick or treat” which will ring through neighbourhoods tonight. But like buns becoming cupcakes top heavy in sugary frosting, Halloween may be somewhat overdressed but its origins are firmly based here in Ireland where fairy lore and a fascination with the ‘other world’ has always been a part of who we are. It is a celebration of the unknown, of the spiritual and speaks of the Irish penchant for eschewing authority and our love of a bit of occasional anarchy and chaos.
To this day I have absolutely no memory of ever having had a childhood birthday party but I have very clear recollections of my youthful Halloweens. Each year I dressed up as the same thing – a gypsy. I wore a long, multicoloured skirt, a head scarf and huge ‘clip on’ hoop earrings. But best of all, my mother applied eye shadow and kohl to my eyes making me a very glamorous gypsy indeed.
The Barm Brack is an important part of Halloween and in the 70’s it came with a whole array of bits to choke on. There was a rag for poverty, a bit of a stick indicating you would be beaten by your spouse, a coin for prosperity and of course the best prize of all was the ring. Mother would slice up the brack on the plate, keeping each slice firmly in place while my brothers and I, made our choice. The ring was immediately discovered, bulging from the cake, wrapped in greaseproof paper. Oh the excitement.
Once tea was over and darkness had fallen it was time to brave whatever ghouls and witches were abroad and head out to collect our store of apples and nuts. As autumn tipped into winter, the nights were cold and our breath made little clouds of condensation ahead of us. The air smelt of damp, decaying leaves overlaid with a whiff of gunpowder from bangers and the scent of distant bonfires. As we moved from house to house we passed other neighbourhood kids, their faces hidden behind garish plastic masks. Who were they? Did we know them?
Once the cold got the better of us and our bag was sufficiently heavy with its feast fit for any squirrel, we headed home. In the light of the house we investigated our booty just in case someone had sneaked in a chocolate bar. Usually they hadn’t. So we munched on monkey nuts as we recounted the nights events to the sound of ongoing bangers exploding outdoors.
I carry the memories of my childhood Halloweens with me to this day and relive them each year, as I hand out sweets and chocolate to my neighbourhood’s children. My own girls are now too old to have me accompany them around the houses and mobile phones mean they can contact me if they need to. Last weekend we decorated the hall and front garden with large spider webs, cats, ghosts and witches. I usually don my own witch’s hat as the light fades on this the most magical day of the year. But maybe for tonight, I will search out some huge hoop earrings and a headscarf! Either way, I can’t wait.
Photo by Paul Sherwood – our front door on Oiche Samhain
Somewhere, deep in my bones, resonates the feeling of harvest bounty. My grocery shopping now includes lots of root vegetables with which to make big pots of soup, full of the energy of summer sunshine and earthy goodness. Soon we will take another trip out to blackberry country, armed with bags in which to collect the little, juicy, ruby red nuggets of sweetness which will be borne home and made into old fashioned desserts and autumnal crumbles.
The swallows who nest in our eaves every summer have left home again, following the sun south. This signals it is time for me to prepare the garden for the dark and stormy days of winter ahead. Pots will be emptied and stored in the corner, garden furniture covered and moved into a sheltered spot and wind chimes and mobiles will be hung in the safety of the boiler house.
Indoors I will root out throws and extra winter cushions for the lounge. Shortly we will begin to draw the curtains at sunset. Light summer nightwear will be replaced by winter pj’s, slippers and big cosy dressing gowns. And best of all, soon we will light the first fire of the season. A magical occasion, which reminds me of the bonfires of our pagan antecedents and connects me with the ancient Celtic meaning of Halloween.
This is the season of hibernation and introspection. Just like the hedgehogs preparing for a big sleep under the bushes at the bottom of the garden, my inner self knows that now is time for energy to be drawn inwards. My vision of autumn is of nights by the fire, kids tucked up cosily in bed, animals stretched by the hearth. Piles of books waiting to be read, and time to think and to be still.