Erikka Askeland: Real treat is to keep on guising

The darkening of the days augurs a chill to the nights, as mists creep silently around the streets.
Erikka AskelandErikka Askeland
Erikka Askeland

What is a better setting for a pumpkin carved into a grinning Jack O’ Lantern and lit from within by a candle? The season of mischief, ghost stories, disguises and the overturning of boring, daylit conventions is coming, and I for one am excited.

Hallowe’en is still one of my favourite events on the calendar. This is despite the fact that, ostensibly, I am an adult. And although I might not wear a costume, I will feel the urge to don spooky, black clothes. Not that this will make much of a difference to my usual sartorial choices. But at this time of year at least I will have a reason.

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The annual festival of ghosts and witches is not just dark, Gothic fun, it is also big business. In the US, the National Retail Federation estimates people spent about $8 billion on costumes, sweets, decorations and cards last year. And it is getting bigger in Britain, too. Fright night is now the third largest retail season after Christmas and Easter, with British consumer likely to shell out more than £300 million.

Most people in the UK believe this is an American thing – a festival dedicated to little monsters showing their true natures and banging on your door demanding tricks or treats. But frankly, if you dare to offer anything tricky – or worse, healthy – expect their older siblings to come round later that night to augment your Halloween decoration scheme with eggs and loo roll.

Not that I ever did that sort of thing. Mostly I went door to door innocently filling my pillowcase with sugary handouts in a costume salvaged from the dressing up box or whipped up by my mum on the sewing machine. I was usually bitterly upset I would then have to ruin my gypsy fortune teller look by wearing a thick winter coat, but the sugar rush after was usually some consolation.

Yet what most people in Scotland and some parts of Ireland know, is that North Americans have shipped back to us the celebration that we brought there in the first place.

According to historian Nicholas Rogers, in his book, Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, the observance of the dawn of winter, on a night when the veil between the physical and the spiritual world is thought to be stretched thin, had been practiced for centuries in the UK.

It was then brought to the Americas by the Irish and Scottish emigrants who went there in their droves, and where they started it up again as a quaint ethnic custom which went mainstream.

It all began with the pre-Christian Celts, although the ancient rituals for the festival of Samhain are poorly documented. But the taste for bonfires, treats made from the recent harvest, and feeling a bit eerie and boisterous have long been with us.

The attempt to Christianise the event by instituting All Souls or Hallowmas from the 31st to the 2nd or 3rd of November allowed its pagan tendencies to continue under the cover of church sanction. But following the reformation, this popish veneration of dead relatives and saints was increasingly frowned upon, particularly in England. Bonfire Night, the state sanctioned commemoration of a Catholic assassination attempt on the Protestant James I and VI, largely took over instead.

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But in areas of Scotland, where the long dour arm of the church sometimes failed to reach, the original festival persisted. Robert Burns gives us a taste of country Halloween high-jinks in a 1785 poem, where he describes a night for young people to act outrageously and scare themselves silly.

I did my own – highly scientific – research by asking friends on Facebook about Scottish Halloween. According to my experts, guising, where young people performed a song or a poem, is still considered to be superior act of soliciting goodies from neighbours to the North American version. Likewise the turnip lantern is a more authentic Scottish alternative to that of the pumpkin. Sadly I’ve given up going door to door. Although I haven’t ruled out what kind of tricks I might get up to.