I have a very uneasy relationship with halloween, I’m never quite sure what to make of it. Much as I dislike being put on the same side of the argument as moralising Christians, I really don’t much care for the whole trick or treat, dressing up thing.
My reasons are of course different from those of the bible waving fraternity. I dislike Halloween, not because it’s nasty and pagan but because it’s a travesty of all the cool aspects of nasty pagan festivals. Britain has no shortage of pre-christian celebrations and traditions and yet, on this most pagan of pagan days, we increasingly choose to follow not our own traditional practices and traditions but a sort of mangled, commercialised version of them. I’m not arguing that we should celebrate Samhain again, no, I'm not a wiccan ponce. ...and we do that on Guy Fawkes’ night anyway – lighting bonfires and scaring off the darkness with loud noises, you didn't think that was really about a gunpowder plot did you?
Modern Halloween, it seems to me, is not be a night of deference to the folk superstitions which the Christians find so offensive, but a night in which we mock those superstitions, ones which seem so childish in the glow of fluorescent bulbs. We stand there, in our brightly lit streets, dressed as plastic goblins, and then congratulate ourselves on not being afraid.
All Hallow’s Eve was traditionally a night when the faerie folk, banshees, goblins and other pre-Christian beasties prowled the earth; when the souls of the lost, restless spirits, were especially active. It was a night when you sat around the fire with your family telling stories, and left lit candles in the windows to help guide the lost spirits. A good example of how scary it was is a story like the legend of the Celtic Folk-Hero Nera. Nera was the only warrior brave enough to rise to the challenge of his king: to leave the hall on the eve of Samhain, to walk alone through the darkness to the Gallows on a nearby hill, and tie a white band around the ankle of one of the hanged men decaying there. Going out on Halloween was not something that children could do, nor even most grown men.
It was, in most parts of England (even more so in Scotland), quite specifically NOT a night when you went out. Because if you went out the faeries would get you, and there is nothing whimsical about the fairies in folk stories: they stole husbands and wives, murdered children, killed livestock. I’ve been thumbing through my big book of folklore* trying to find a story that I remember reading, but I’ve forgotten the title and this book is huge.
As I remember it, the story it was about a man who was sitting with his wife on all Hallow’s eve, keeping warm and out of trouble. For some reason she insisted on going out after dark and was taken by the queen of the fairies. Exactly one year later the man’s brothers came to sit with him through the night. Sure enough the fairy folk came back, they stood by his door and called to him, entreated him to come out and join his wife. He heard her voice, she pleaded with him too, and he forgot when he had been told about staying inside. His brothers, however, were mindful of the stories of the fairies, held him down and refused to let him go out. The next morning, at dawn, the noises stopped and the brothers went out to see what had happened outside. They found the door and the doorstep covered with blood, and his wife was never seen again.
A traditional Halloween should be spent sitting in a candlelit house, surrounded by impenetrable darkness and cold, terrified of what might be waiting outside. These days, the closest anyone gets to that is hiding from trick or treaters.
I'm going to go and read some M R James stories and scare myself up good...
*Briggs, Katherine M. A Dictionary of British Folk Tales in the English Language. Routledge : London : 1991