Thursday 28 October 2010
Season of the witch
There are times when it seems to me that the English know more about the customs and traditions of, say, the French or the Americans than they do about the nations with whom we have long shared this island.
Take Halloween, for instance. So many people are under the deluded impression that this is an American import of fairly recent provenance. Yes, it’s true that there are pronounced American features to the contemporary festival, notably jack-o-lanterns and trick-or-treat, but Halloween has been celebrated here for ages past in Scotland and Ireland, where it emerged from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain.
It has long been part of Scottish tradition for children to go out ‘guising’ on Halloween, visiting houses, dressed for the occasion their way lighted by a lantern carved not from a pumpkin but from a large hollowed-out neep, a turnip. In the homes they visit they perform a set-piece, a poem or a song in return for small gifts of sweets or nuts or whatever the household could spare. It was such customs that were carried by Scottish and Irish migrants to the Americas.
There are also English customs which, at root, belong to a pagan past, though here the tradition is much more heavily sublimated. Dominic Sandbrook in a polemical piece in the latest issue of the BBC History Magazine argues that the ‘foreign custom’ of Halloween should be scrapped in favour of the ‘traditional’ English festival of Bonfire Night (If I ran the country, I’d throw Halloween on the bonfire).
Celebrated on November 5, Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes Night, marks the foiling of the Gunpowder plot in 1605, in which Fawkes and a number of Catholic co-conspirators planned to blow up the opening session of Parliament with the king in attendance. But this is just a political gloss on another pagan practice, the lighting of huge bonfires to give renewed power to the sun, which ancient communities, governed by the law of the seasons, believed was in danger of dying at this time of year, with the nights growing longer and the days shorter. The Samhain bonfires, moved to a more acceptable occasion, also included the burning of an ‘old guy’, clearly the vestiges of a human sacrifice, long before anyone had ever heard of Guy Fawkes!
Samhain, the long dark night, the night when the dead are nearest to the living, is also the night of the witches, warlocks and imps! My coven will assemble, flying in to celebrate the turning of the seasons and to honour the Goddess. The fires shall burn and the wheel of life shall turn, and the dead come back home on Samhain. Yes, they shall, and join with the living, witches and straights, in a big Halloween party at my London home!