Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Help the Hallowe'en Party!

When I were a lad, that's what the young 'uns used to say as they went from door to door-- "Help the Halloween Party!", not "Trick or Treat"!

I am rather sad that the American practice (is it American?) has replaced the Irish one (or at least the Dublin one), but apart from that-- and because I spend so much time on this blog waxing nostalgic and crying "O tempora! O mores!"-- I should say that I thoroughly approve of the ever-growing enthusiasm for Halloween.

It gives me a thrill to walk through my neighbourhood and see skeletons, witches and a whole miscellany of monsters staring out at me from windows. It is a wholesome and happy image, the image of mothers and fathers carefully helping their children to deck their house-fronts in evocations of blood, death, decay, decrepitude and ghastliness. One of my favourite movie tag-lines of all time is a tag-line that was used to promote the Texas Chainsaw Massacre: "The family that slays together, stays together". Homicide for the purposes of family cohesion is going a little too far, but arranging artful tableaux of horror and frightfulness is guaranteed to build a bond between the generations.

I haven't dressed up, not because I think it is silly of adults to do so, but simply because I don't have the guts. Most of the year we hide behind our costumes of trousers and shirts and sweaters, and few of us can really be called eccentric in our apparel. But when you dress up for Halloween, you are submitting your creative endeavours to the judgement of the public, and I'm neither arty-crafty enough nor courageous enough to face that. Not yet, anyway.

It could be said that Halloween is becoming too commercialised. I have some sympathy with this argument. When I were a lad (to relapse into nostalgia), I don't remember so many shop-bought or comparatively fancy window decorations. Nor do I remember the shops being so choc-a-bloc with plastic Halloweeen geegaws. I even remember writing a poem, in my teens, exulting in the fact that the "vampires of trade" had little to get their teeth into in Halloween, as opposed to Christmas. I can even remember the closing verse:

The Christmas we know is a media show
Brought to life through a flickering screen
But the Halloween night that they knew long ago
Comes to life in tonight's Haloween.

Well, that isn't true anymore. But what can you do? What Calvin Coolidge said about his own country-- "the business of America is business"-- has now become true of every country in the developed world. Buying and selling, instead of being one aspect of society, has become its main business, even its main amusement. This is highly regrettable, but since we are going to be frenetically buying and selling anyway, it may as well be plastic skeletons and fake vampire teeth.

Conservative Christians (usually Protestants) in America often criticise Halloween for being a pagan festival. Of course, it's not true. But equally of course, it is far from silly to worry about demonic influence or opening yourself up to occult forces. Playing with a ouija board, no matter how jokingly, would be foolish and dangerous. So would any kind of invocation of demons. But most people are sane enough to take the ghastliness and ghoulishness for what it is, pure sport, and no more demonic than a tanner playing the part of Lucifer in a Mystery Play in medieval England.

I think that Halloween is an encouraging phenomenon for Christians. It shows that our culture still thirsts for the supernatural. And the unspoken, unnoticed fact that Hallowe'en is in fact the Eve of All Hallows shows that secular culture still needs to raid Christianity for its celebrations, since it cannot create celebrations of its own. All feasts are religious feasts-- even if they are religious feasts in disguise.

Last year was the first year I went to All Saints' Vigil Mass. Somehow, Halloween suddenly made sense. Not only historical sense, but poetic and dramatic sense. The Christian perspective, I increasingly think, is the one perspective from which life ceases to be seen as a bewildering anarchy, but instead is revealed as a glorious picture. I had the same experience when I started going to Mass a few years ago. Sunday, instead of being a dreary and depressing day of closed shops and gearing up for a return to school or work, became the joyous Day of the Lord, centred on the most important liturgy of the whole week. Of course, that is my experience as someone living in post-Christian Europe; but, since I believe Christ is the Lord of History, I think the same experience of suddenly seeing the master-pattern would strike a Christian convert in China or South Korea or Saudi Arabia.

I could write and write about Halloween. I could write about my life-long experience of Halloween in Ballymun, where bangers and fireworks begin to be set off from early September. In my mind, the exciting chill of the October air is impossible to think of without also thinking of the crackle and shriek of fireworks. I could fondly recall the bonfires of my childhood, which may have grown bigger in memory but which I truly believe were pretty monstrous by any standards. I only assisted in the building of the bonfire one year, but it is one of my happiest childhood memories. I could try to explain how the Halloweens of my boyhood helped to implant in me a passionate belief in the importance of specialness-- special times, special places, special situations, special practices. I think one of the great struggles of our era should be to prevent specialness from perishing from the Earth-- to hold back the crushing tide of sameness, as the world becomes one vast suburb, one vast audience, one vast supermarket, one endless "shopping day".

But I can remember waxing nostalgic about Halloween in an English essay in school, when I was a ripe old codger of fourteen, so I think I had better stop there.


  1. Monkey nuts, sparklers, stealing wood "accidentally" left out by local builders. Having it stolen by local bowsies. Stealing more wood and hiding it in the pramsheds. Witches gúnai made from black rubbish bags. Shouting "boo!" at old ladies we knew forever when they opened the doors and them screeching in horror until they realised sure it was only us really under our mammy's makeup. Mandarins. Wine apples. Barney bracks and the fáinne. Sitting around the bonfire all night long, 30 of us munchkins at least, chomping on Chomps, Macaroons, but no Kalipsos hopefully and so much lovely fruit, quietly, which was a miracle in itself. The next day it really was like the end of the world never mind the year when we'd see the wreck from the bonfire, as if somebody smothered old Ireland while we slept. The worst thing the council ever did was ban bonfires, took a whole lot of magic out of childhood. If I had a big piece of land I'd build a bonfire every Halloween, invite all the kids and their kin and their wood and have a big hooley with a yahboo to the council. It could be worse though, we could be having a Winterval festival instead of Christmas so thank God for small mercies!

  2. Ha ha, what was wrong with Calypsos, I seem to remember they were OK. Desperate Dan bars, A-Team crisps, Barry Mcguigan cripss, Winks..."a package of crips"....the reflective badges that came in Frosties and that kids put in the spokes of their wheels...Batman chewing gum cards, kids stealing doors from empty flats to put on the bonfire, bonfire wood being stored in the cellars of the Ballymun flats till it must have been a fire hazard, Guy Fawkes's cut-out-masks in the centrefolds of the British boys' comics, plastic glow-in-the-dark vampires teeth coming with the boy's comics...A-Team action figures....oops, I've drifted off from Halloween...


  3. Kalip/Calypsos were the rock hard bars for "tempence", they'd take your teeth out like the little yellow Big Ben bars. Crips!, I do remember saying that and thinking we were chic and French because we could say the ooh la la from the French Fries crisps. I had the Kellogg's cockerel on my Barbie bike too. Stealing the doors off the flats, that is proper Del Boy, can you imagine the council inspector's face?! I have to go put the dinner on now. But I'll leave you with one final thought.


  4. As a child, I hated Bosco with every fibre of my being.

    Officially, that is. Unofficially I kind of liked the show. I especially liked the Magic Door section. I think it may have marked me for life because I always see books, conversations, songs, jokes etc. as a kind of Magic Door and this fills me with awe. Really, somebody only has to say, "Did you hear the one about the Irishman on Brighton Pier" and suddenly-- you're there! With Philip through the Magic Door!