Back in 2007, about a week before Hallowe’en, the BBC reported from Scotland that the organisers of a Hallowe’en event had banned pumpkins and trick-or-treating on the grounds that they were “too American” and had no place in the traditional Scottish celebration of that festival. “We will be having none of that pumpkin or trick-or-treat rubbish. Pumpkins are banned and will not be allowed beyond the front gate,” said one of the organisers. Those attending were to take part, instead, in traditional Scottish Hallowe’en activities such as apple-dooking (apple bobbing) and making turnip (ie swede) lanterns.
I confess to being somewhat surprised by one aspect of this – the idea that apple bobbing and turnip lanterns are a specifically Scottish thing. I grew up with both in the urban north east of England during the 1960s – which far from being Scottish or “Celtic” was firmly part of the English/Germanic cultural sphere, and especially part of the Danelaw, as place name elements in the area show. For us it was a week of festivities starting with Hallowe’en, running through Mischief Night and ending with Bonfire Night.
It’s a measure of how much we have lost, or perhaps more accurately surrendered without so much as a whimper let alone a (Guy Fawkes) bang, that Hallowe’en today, for all its wide popularity in Britain, bears no recognisable resemblance to the darker and more raw festival of a few decades ago. Today’s Hallowe’en, and almost entirely plastic it is too, is bought off the shelf at a supermarket from promotional displays which make their appearance as soon as the kids go back to school in September.
Go back only 40 years, however, and it was a cottage industry in which turnips were bought a few days before the actual festival, hollowed out painstakingly by the child with some assistance by the parent, with a blunt knife and a teaspoon, and eventually carried around neighbouring houses with a candle in for gods’ sake. Woe betide the wretched child whose parents insisted on putting a small torch in their lantern instead of a real candle; but what parent today, in abject terror of the Health & Safety Nazis, would dare to send their child out with the means to set fire to themselves – even though they or their parents happily carried a candle lantern year after year without ever suffering even superficial burns, let alone turning themselves into a self-propelled wicker man?
Cottage industry, too, were the costumes of those who insisted on dressing up for the occasion. Most of us didn’t, but for those who did insist it was mostly a hastily-made ghost costume cobbled together from a worn out sheet; and wonder of wonders! – no-one ever set fire to their sheet with their candle! However did we manage to reach adulthood in significant numbers without the Health & Safety plonkers breathing down ours and our parents’ necks and protecting us against things that it had never occurred to anyone previously that we might need protecting from?
Last Hallowe’en I arrived back from work to find occasional small children dressed head to foot in plastic tat being led from house to house by a parent. The little darlings, inevitably one per adult, had obviously been kitted up from Asda and bizarrely they were each carrying a handbag-sized black plastic cauldron into which householders were clearly expected to drop sweeties. It seems that the days of a child carrying a lantern, even one with a torch inside, are long gone. And why only one child per adult? Have people completely stopped having more than one child per family – a trophy as proof that their naughty bits work? Whatever happened to the days when families comprised several children, with the family’s offspring being led around the neighbourhood on Hallowe’en by the eldest without an adult present? And whatever happened to “A penny to keep the witch away”? Presumably that went the same way as everything else deemed by the Blair government to be socially exclusive – or was there a PF campaign to rehabilitate witches that I missed somehow?
Once again, as I have for many years, I am ignoring Hallowe’en this year. I will be ignoring it until parents and children do it properly.
Bah humbug and break out the toffee onions.