Lifting the spirits

Charles 25 Comments


Circa 1997.  Neither of them became undertakers.

Circa 1997. Neither of them became undertakers.


Posted by Kitty Perry


When I was a child in the 60s, not a lot happened on 31st October. Casting my mind back and thinking really hard, the only thing I can remember doing is bobbing for apples. Which I did once at a friend’s birthday party. Come to think of it, I’m not even sure that the party was in October.

Fast forward to the 80s. Early one autumn evening the doorbell rang. Three children were standing there wearing cone-shaped hats made from black card.

‘Hello,’ I said, wondering what on earth was going on.

‘Trick or tree-eat?’

I had no idea what they meant.

‘Er, I’ll have a treat – what treats have you got?’

They looked at each other, completely confused. And then went away looking disappointed. Almost as disappointed as me.

By the time I had children of my own I knew a lot more about the traditions of Halloween. Or rather the Halloween that had crossed the pond from the USA: fancy-dress parties, carved pumpkins, green cakes, skull-shaped sweets and half-price offers on bags of fun-size chocolate bars – for the trick-or-treaters. Or as my husband calls them, ‘The spoiled brats who come round wanting something for nothing just as I’m settling down to watch the telly.’ Or words to that effect.

Have we missed our chance to resurrect the Celtic traditions of a night when the ghosts of the dead visit the mortal world? Where are our sacred bonfires and our ghost stories? Is there any hope for a proper ‘Day of the Dead’? Or even a few days of the dead? A time for remembering our ancestors – all of them, not only the ones who died fighting in wars. Culminating in parties and firework displays – incorporation of your dead ones’ ashes would be optional.

Fancy dress? Of course, but not for animals and pets. Sorry Vampire Hedgehog and Freddy Krueger Guinea Pig. You’ll know what I mean if you’re a fan of Bored Panda.

Old traditions combined with new. And, instead of sweets and chocolate, trick-or-treaters would be given fresh locally-sourced produce like turnips and cabbage for delicious home-made soups. And apples for bobbing.



  1. Charles

    Well said, fast forward a few years ( or maybe not) when the immaculate designer dressed skeleton knocking at your door asks if the treats are sugar free, gluten free,don’t contain nuts and other known allergens. If you then offer fruit you must insure they are organic and are grown by a charity co operative. Oh and please can you keep your dog/ cat etc away from them as they are allergic to pet dander! Or just don’t answer the door… 🙂

  2. Charles

    Thank you Ginny! My advice would be to answer the door wearing the scariest Halloween mask you can find. The one from the film Scream works well.

  3. Charles

    I’d be inclined to give menacing, acquisitive children a dose of rolled-up newspaper. Sorry, is that politically incorrect? It’s my age. I too can remember October in the 60s. I don’t think anything happened on any one of its 31 days. Ever. As to reviving indigenous customs, adding a 21st century twist or two, eliminating the kiddie thrill-fest element and getting down to some serious partying with the forebears — what a lovely idea, Ms Perry!

    1. Charles

      I’m thinking of starting a refuge for lost apostrophes – everyone (apart from Quokkagirl!) seems to have forgotten how to punctuate “Hallowe’en”.

      I like your idea of eliminating the kiddies, Charles. More work for us!


      “Trick or treat?”

      “Sod off.”

      1. Charles

        Andrew – I love apostrophes as much as the next person, and commas. However, and I write this with a tear of nostalgia trickling down my cheek, Halloween is perfectly acceptable. It’s progress innit?

  4. Charles

    Good post Kitty. Great response Ginny. All Hallows eve, which is a fascinating British invention, has been hijacked by America and sold back to us as a pale and insipid version of itself. I don’t object when little blighters come scrounging for freebies when I’m watching the telly and I quite like having spooky stuff in my window for the little scroungers to see I am Hallowe’en friendly. But I’d so much prefer to return to the sppokier, untamed night of the deathly visitations.

  5. Charles

    All Saint’s Day, or All Soul’s or All Hallows, on 1 November remains a holy day of obligation in the Catholic Church, and is a time for bonding between the living ‘Church militant’ and deceased ‘Church triumphant’.

    Far from being a British or American practice, it’s been a tradition recorded as early as the 4th century. In Poland today, candles still light up cemeteries at this time of year, as dead relatives are remembered.

    1. Charles

      Didn’t we have a pagan festival at this time of year long before the Christians came along and renamed it? A bit like they did with Christmas? And Easter?!

        1. Charles

          There was certainly a pre-Christian festival called Samhain (Summer’s end) which would involve the final harvest and a slaughtering of the livestock that could not be preserved over winter (The Anglo Saxons called November ‘blood month’ for this reason.) Absolutely no evidence to connect this to the dead or the ancestors though. What (very little) evidence there is suggests that in pre-Christian times the ancestors were more likely to have been remembered in early May. Of course, this is not to say that Samhain was not a time of the dead, (absence of evidence is not evidence of absence) but the clear connection between this time and the ancestors relates to the Church (see Richard’s post). Of course, modern Pagans have taken it on board and it is now an importance festival in the Pagan calendar.

    2. Charles

      Ah yes RR, in Belgium too, it’s a proper national holiday. On our first All Saints Day living there we thought the rapture had happened and left us sinners alone in the universe. The city was dead, we never thought to visit the cemeteries…

  6. Charles

    I didn’t know about Día del los Muertos until fairly recently, too bogged down with the commercial stuff ! Now I’m enlightened and so is my six year old ! Its more fun and it has given us a more understanding and acceptance of ‘after death’…. we shall be decorating our alter tonight in memory of my grandfathers before. We need story tellers to enlighten more and more…

  7. Charles

    Kitty, allow me to explain why most modern scholars believe Halloween falls on 31 October because the Catholic All Saints Day falls on 1 November, and why this was not a ploy to replace Samhain, an obscure pagan festival in Celtic Ireland to mark the start of winter (virtually the end of every month was a festival of some sort back then).

    From early Christianity, it was a custom to solemnise the anniversary of a martyr’s death. This was normally done at the church nearest the place where the martyrdom occurred. By the fourth century, neighbouring churches had begun to celebrate common feasts.

    A feast to honour all saints developed and, you’re correct that it used to be celebrated in May.

    Pope Gregory III (8th century) moved it to I November because this is the date he dedicated a church in Rome—All Saints Chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s unlikely he had ever heard of Samhain, an old ritual of long-dead Celtic pagans which, as Jenny points out, offers little evidence that it was ever a celebration of the dead.

    In the 9th century, Pope Gregory IV decreed that All Saints be observed everywhere.

    In the 10th century, All Souls Day was introduced, so the Church now had feasts for those in heaven and all those in purgatory. Catholic peasants from Italy to Ireland, wondering about the unfortunate souls in hell, started ‘secular’ customs like banging pots to let the damned know they were not forgotten. Halloween was born as a form of All Damned Day that wasn’t sanctioned by the Church.

    Dressing up for the Dance of the Macabre is said to have begun in France. Dressing up is not big in Ireland.

    Even ‘trick or treat’ has Catholic origins from the 1500s to the 1700s in England when Catholics had no legal rights. During the penal periods, bands of revellers would put on masks and visit local Catholics in the dead of night, demanding beer and cakes for their celebration.

    Awareness of this custom arrived in the American colonies with the first English settlers. It was then relinquished of its sinister origins and became a bit of trick or treat fun.

    1. Charles

      Richard, that’s quite a history lesson! I like the way the high-ups and know-bests ordain seemly festivities only to see them subverted by ignorance and superstition.

      Trick or treating? Begging and threatening. No way to raise a child. Bring back Bob-a-Job week.

  8. Charles

    Charles, I agree it’s amusing how rituals evolve from the bottom up as well as from the top down but I don’t see it as ignorance in this context. Both the high and low of society shared an equally strong faith in heaven, purgatory and hell.

    Tradition can be a body of beliefs and practices which is received, preserved, and transmitted by a community. Tradition in this sense is as much the creator as the creation of the community.

    8th century Gregory III, the catalyst for Halloween, was from Syria, Byzantium. He was the last non-European pope until our Pope Francis I arrived on the scene. Another reason he was unlikely to have heard of Samhain in Ireland!

    1. Charles

      Following on from this I am bound to say that I know of no evidence to connect Hallowe’en/ Samhain to Paganism prior to Ross Nicholls in the 50s. However, as Charles points out, what it was ain’t necessarily what it is! 🙂

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