We recently shared a simple meditation as a mark of love and respect for those who have passed, particularly within the last year. I thought long and hard about writing about what was a very personal and emotional experience, and the only answer I could find was that it was meant to be shared. Such a gift was not for me alone…
I never really understood Halloween as a child. In Yorkshire, in my childhood, it was not the pumpkin-laden celebration it has now become… the fun came later with Mischief Night on the fourth of November, where, along with the tradition of giving soul cakes to callers on Halloween, you can see the shared origins with ‘trick or treating’. Mischief Night was a time for playing tricks on neighbours, and every year we were lectured in school about what was and was not acceptable. Tying door handles to metal dustbin lids then knocking on doors and running away was a favourite and considered perfectly acceptable behaviour on that one night of the year.
Mischief night was followed by the flames and fireworks of Bonfire Night. Despite its association with Guy Fawkes and the gunpowder plot of 1605, in truth the bonfires hark back to the old rites of Samhain when the hearthfires were extinguished and ritually rekindled to mark the end of summer and the coming of the winter darkness. That always made sense… it is in darkness that new life is conceived and grown, just as spring is born of winter.
Halloween was different though; I was never really given a good explanation for it. For a child, it was a time of shadows and mystery with a dash of excitement. Even thinking back to that time calls up memories of my mother’s kitchen. There would be brittle bonfire toffee made with black treacle and creamy toffee apples setting on their sticks. Yorkshire parkin, the dark, spiced oatmeal cake, freshly baked in preparation for Bonfire Night and cooling in tins. There would be soul cakes too, marked with a cross, covering the worktops. And old tales would be told as we roasted chestnuts on the open fire… folktales guaranteed to send a shiver down your spine, like that of the Hand of Glory.
The most evocative memory though is the Halloween lantern. Unlike today when the easier-to-carve and more impressive pumpkin is king, our lanterns were made from turnips. Just thinking about those lanterns calls up that pungent and peculiar smell of warm, singed turnip, candleblack and hot wax. A large turnip, about the size, and preferably the shape, of a human head, would be hollowed and carved. There was a knack to the removal of the rock-hard inner flesh and carving the face was so difficult it always looked primitive and menacing, especially once the candle was lit within. The pale orange and purple skin with the flickering flame made it look livid and corpse-like. This would be ceremoniously set on the doorstep… to ward off evil spirits, or so we were told.
I have often wondered just how far back that tradition really goes. The most common legend these days is the Irish tale of Jack who cheated the devil of his death, but with Samhain’s roots going back at least to the Celtic peoples, perhaps it has a deeper meaning in the mysterious cult of the head in which, according to historians, the soul was believed to reside.
But in spite of stories and legends, no-one ever really explained to my satisfaction what Halloween was really about. There was something that intrigued me, something that, even then, held an echo of ancient sacredness. All Hallows Eve was the night of the dead, a festival that seems to have been shared, in one form or another, by most cultures throughout history.
In my childhood, the explanations fell into two main camps. Some took the view that the darkness brought evil spirits out to roam that one night of the year, others told that it was a time when the dead could, and would, return. All seemed to agree that it was a night when the veil between realities was thin enough to allow spirit to cross and, in one way or another, interact with humans. For a child living next door to a graveyard, it was an uneasy night… and I was glad of the lantern on the doorstep.
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