Frightful Fiends and Hallowe’en

idem sacra cano signataque tempora fastis: ecquis ad haec illinc crederet esse viam?

I sing of sacred rites and calendar days: would anyone have thought it would lead to this? (Ovid: Fasti II)

“Like one, that on a lonely road  doth walk in fear and dread,  And having once turn’d round, walks on and turns no more his head: Because he knows, a frightful fiend doth close behind him tread.”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”


Today is All Saints Day, or Hallowmas, the day after the night when the ghouls rise, the witches cackle and the Devil rides abroad, seeking whom he may devour. Perhaps. We seem to love scaring ourselves witless. It’s the same old perennial, every year, we ask ‘is Hallowe’en a good thing, a bad thing, harmful or harmless, I wonder’?  As with most holidays – or holy days –  it’s a mish-mash of Christian and pagan traditions, rather like Yule and Eostre, which we’ve conveniently Christianised at least in part, whereas this one, possibly initiated by Pope Gregory IV (795-844) as All Saints Day on November 1 has been left to evolve as the scary one, being celebrated the night before. Most sources agree that the day we know of as Hallowe’en in Western culture was lifted from the pagan Celtic celebration of Samhain. Samhain was the close of summer, the end of the growing season and the start of the harvest. Food was prepared and set aside for ancestors and protective spirits, and rituals honouring the dead took place – a similar ritual is still observed in Mexico as Dia de Muertos sitting somewhat uneasily beside modern Catholicism. Churches celebrate Harvest Festivals around this time so Samhain hasn’t quite escaped a whitewashing from the Church, which celebrates growth, hope and good harvest while leaving out the scary bits.

The Island had a party last night and as I walked home, small shrieking ghoulish creatures besplashed with fake blood, greyed faces and black witches’ hats were trick-or-treating, accompanied by parents in cadaverous make up and clothing.

No, I’ve never really been much of a supporter of All Hallows Eve, the Day of the Dead. Essentially a celebration based on fear seems to me to be psychologically counterproductive, the emotional equivalent of riding a fearsomely steep rollercoaster – being scared just…because. Americans are worse than we are, they spend over six billion dollars annually not just on costumes but on silly nonsense such as a garden ornament in the form of a life-size stuffed “bride” hung by a noose around her neck.  You can also buy bloody plastic severed limbs – the hatchet still embedded in the fake flesh to hang from trees in the garden. Some feature severed heads dangling from trees, eyes a-goggle, seemingly watching one’s every move. A few years ago, a woman dressed as a zombie bride with blood trickling from her face processed stone-faced through the aisles of a supermarket; young children screamed.

Wouldn’t it be so much better if instead of sending ghouls to knock on the door and be given treats, the only day in the year when the neighbours’ kids ever darken one’s own porch, to leave the lights on more often so they felt at home tapping on the door for the other three hundred and sixty – odd days as well?

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