HALLOWEEN AND PAGAN JOLLIFICATION
October turns my local supermarket black and orange. Ghoulish looking snacks appear and recipes are popular for anything that resembles decapitated hands, lost eyeballs, witches, jack-o-lanterns and skeletons.
Currently popular are frozen hands in a bowl of spiced up red wine for the adults or red cordial for les enfants. It’s called Fright Night. The hands are made by filling up rubber gloves with water, tying them off and freezing them. A dodgy business if the glove springs a leak in your freezer.
Pretzel Ghosts are created when small pretzels are coated in white chocolate and candy eyeballs are jammed in the top two holes leaving a gaping mouth. One bite and it’s gone.
An Australian culinary oddity is the Redback Spider Dip. A monster-sized spider is crafted from pizza dough and baked. Then it is hollowed out and ‘bloody’ tomato salsa is poured into the spider’s body.
The idea is to tear off the head and legs first & dip. Then slowly work your way inwards so the salsa doesn’t leak out. There’ll be trauma and mess in the kitchen if dining etiquette is not observed.
But Halloween wasn’t always pumpkins and job lots of sweets. It derived from the ancient Celt tradition of Samhain. It was one of the quarterly fire festivals and marked the time when harvests were gathered.
Samhain marked the beginning of the ‘dark half of the year.’ It took place October 31 to November 1. It was believed that the barriers between the spirit world and the physical world would dissolve during Samhain. Ancestors might cross over during Samhain and visit their kin.
There were many myths and stories attached to Samhain and mythological heroes featured prominently. The Celts liked their heroes ingenious, courageous, muscle-bound and reckless.
After the harvest had been gathered. a community wheel of fire was lit and presided over by Druid priests. Cattle were sacrificed, mead or beer drunk in excessive quantities and there was abundant feasting.
Then when the crapulous revellers finally returned home, they took with them a flame from the community fire to relight their hearth fires.
During Samhain offerings were left for the Sidhs (the fairies) and the Celts would dress up as monsters and animals so the Sidhs wouldn’t carry them off. Other threats were the Faery Host – a posse of hunters who might choose to kidnap the unwary. There were also the wicked Sluagh who were keen to enter folk’s homes and steal their souls.
The Celt tradition of Samhain was of interest to Pope Gregory III and his successors. In the eighth century All Saints Day on November I (when Saints were honoured) was fused with aspects of Samhain.
The evening before All Saints Day came to be known as All Hallows Eve and much later it was called Halloween.
My favourite Samhain monster is Lady Gwyn. She was a wandering headless woman dressed in white, always accompanied by her stout black pig. Lady Gwyn liked nothing better than to chase folk in the middle of the night and reduce them to quivering wrecks.
But Lady Gwyn was a funster compared to the headless horsemen who carried their own heads. Their horses had flaming red eyes and if you had the misfortune to encounter them, it was considered to be a death omen.
When you think about the mayhem, fear and jollification of Samhain, it makes the twenty-first century Halloween tradition seem bland and commodified. Whereas burning wheels of fire, Lady Gwyn, headless horsemen, fabulous feasts and tankards of honey wine (Mead) seem much more exciting.
Image: detail of a local house brilliantly decorated for Halloween. Skulls, witchy elements, skeletons and ironic details contained behind a white picket fence.