Lacking a Fourth of July or a Thanksgiving, over the past decade British shopkeepers have rushed to stock the Chinese-made paraphernalia of Halloween just to keep their cash tills ticking to tide them over till Christmas when they can begin shelving their supplies of Easter Eggs and Valentine’s Day cards.
Too often you hear curmudgeonly folk in the UK bemoaning the adoption by their British countrymen of what has always been the quintessentially American public holiday that is Halloween.
They do not know their history. What they do not know was that the elongated festival of Christmas actually used to begin with Halloween and went on till Candlemas (think Groundhog) Day in the first week in February — at least for those that could afford it.
A Lord of Misrule presiding over topsy turvy anarchy was appointed in every gentleman’s house and by every parish. Gambling card games such as Primero, Gleek, New Cut, Knave Out of Doors and, yes, even Trump, could be played without fear of church sanction, Masques and mummeries, that is to say celebrations where disguise and accompanying naughtiness is the key were encouraged — in fact much was condoned that would make the long, cold, dark nights go more quickly before the days lengthened once again in the early Spring.
Halloween was the time for apple bobbing, especially in Ireland. Halloween is still called Snap Apple Night in Newfoundland and Labrador. In the north of England they too bobbed for apples, but nuts were also on the menu and there the festival was Nutcrack Night, as the tradition was to throw the nuts in the bonfire. All these pastimes had a more profound and sometimes sinister background story. They and many other such traditions predicted if, when or to whom a young girl would be married or sometimes whether the omens were predicting death.
For after all, it was Saman’s night. The Angel of Death, Saman or Samhain, has had his feast on the last day of October since long before the Christian religion bolted on its own All Saint’s Day and thereby stealing as its All Hallow’s Eve the previous night.
Saman, whose name means the one who has killed the summer, is coming for you too, unless you can buy him off by handing over some offerings of food when the door knocks. Even today his disciples expect it. So when you pass out the Snickers to a devilish little munchkin accompanied by her embarrassed dad, be aware that you are keeping alive a very real part of pre-history.