Everything you ever wanted to know about Halloween but were afraid to ask...
HAPPY HALLOWEEN, READERS, THE SEASON OF THE WITCH IS UPON US. HERE VICKY ALLAN, DRESSED IN COBWEBS AND DRINKING A ZOMBIE COCKTAIL, GUIDES YOU THROUGH THE PERFECT SAMHAIN
THE grand festival of gore and misrule that is Halloween never used to be a big retail moment in Scotland – more a matter of carving a few neeps and putting a sheet over your head. But now October 31 is fast becoming one of the biggest consumer festivals in the UK, third for spending after Christmas and Easter. According to forecasts, our splurge in the UK this year is set to reach £320 million as we descend on the shops for costumes, sweets, decorations and lovely, lurid, grotesque tat — though we’re still trailing way behind the United States which is predicted to spend an astonishing £7 billion. The result is that there is also a backlash, as there has been over Christmas, against this consumerism – and a rise in people making their own Halloween decorations and costumes.
So, as much as there are those who like to splurge on creepy tat (including many Sunday Herald staff), you just need to turn to Pinterest and Instagram to find a host of folk who like to show off pictures of Halloween items they have made themselves. And, of course, there are those who crave a return to Celtic Samhain traditions.
Nevertheless, more and more of us are buying costumes rather than making them, and with supermarkets selling a wide range of outfits, this has become easier than ever. The top costumes this year, according to Google’s search analysis, are predicted to be Wonder Woman followed by Harley Quinn and a clown outfit: proof that the biggest influence on what we wear at Halloween is Hollywood films.
Donald Trump remains popular and, pushing over into the realms of bad taste, Harvey Weinstein masks are available. But Halloween hasn’t always been about the big spend. For much of its very Scottish history it was about adapting what you had. As such, it’s a festival with a distinctly split identity, part capitalist excess and part anarchic, traditional carnival. Here’s our guide to how to celebrate Halloween, in the old ways and the new.
THE DARK SCOTTISH ROOTS OF HALLOWEEN
The correct term here in Scotland, of course, is “guising”, not “trick or treating”, although even here we are suffering from the invasion of an Americanised version of Halloween so our streets all too often ring to the call “trick or treat”. The festival which had its origins in Celtic Scotland and Ireland has gone off like a firework around the world, been commercialised in America and delivered back in altered form to the very people who invented it in the first place.
Despite the modern, commercial spin, the “trick or treat” tradition of getting dressed up and visiting local homes looking for sweets or threatening mischief has its origins in the festival Samhain – the Celtic culture’s celebration marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, or the “darker half” of the year. And even today, in Scotland, it’s still a requirement that those who want their sweets perform a song or at least a half-hearted knock-knock joke. Guising, in the past, wasn’t a sober affair. A crowd would gather with their carved-out neep lanterns, drink alcohol, then hit the town or village where they would feel the right to enter any house, without knocking, and create mischief by stealing, raiding and making use of what they liked in the home. Robert Burns’s poem Halloween provides a vivid description of the festival from times past, declaring, “What fearfu’ pranks ensue!” In past centuries Wonder Woman and Donald Trump costumes wouldn’t have been the order of the day. Rather, the point was to achieve anonymity, mostly accomplished by covering one’s face with soot, flour, a mask, or whatever might be to hand – a pillowcase would suffice. Performances, however, would be more elaborate than most of the half-hearted jokes that constitute guising today. A full “Galoshin” – or guiser – play might be performed with lines such as: “Get up, auld wife, and shake your feathers, Dinna think that we are beggars!” Thus would begin a typical performance. “Open your door and let us in, We hope your favour for to win. We’re none of your rogueish sort, but come of your noble train. Will you let the guisers act?”
Some 19th-century descriptions of guising have boys dressed in “old shirts belonging to their fathers … and mitre-shaped casques [hats] of brown paper”. Cross-dressing was also common – though not officially approved of. In Elgin in 1598, George Kay was accused of “dancing and guysing” with “his sister’s coat upon him”.
So does all the change mean its lost its spirit? For all the plastic and confectionery, all the consumer overspend, the season still has that edge of mischief and rule-breaking.
Marina Warner, author of No Go The Bogeyman, describes Halloween as a festival which creates “an urban architectural space, a riotous drama in which everyone is an actor: they conjure the spectral and the demonic, introduce puppets and effigies, masks and costumes to represent perennial themes”.
Enjoy. It’ll be a scream.
BRING THE DEAD TO DINNER
Halloween has its origins in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, and what seems all too often forgotten in the sugar and plastic over-loaded frenzy that it has become today is that, at its heart, it is about remembering the dead.
According to Celtic tradition, the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is thought to be thin at Halloween, and is therefore a time when lost relatives and ancestors can pass over and visit.
So, set a place for one of your ancestors at the table, load it with their favourite mince and tatties, or dollop of trifle, and indulge in one of the most powerful Samhain traditions, the Dumb Supper.
For this night-time meal, doors are left unlocked, a seat is left empty, and an invitation is made to the lost soul to come and visit.
Many other cultures, of course, honour the dead at this time of year, among them the people of Latin America, who celebrate the Day Of The Dead on November 1 and 2, the Christian All Souls’ Day. The last decade saw the festival go mainstream in US culture, and with it a rise in popularity of its decorative skeleton-inspired costumes. Again, the trend reached our shores, and now, through talking about it, children across Scotland are being reminded that this is a time for remember the dead. It always has been – only some of that had been forgotten.
What seems all too often forgotten in the sugar and plastic over-loaded frenzy that it has become today is that, at its heart, Halloween is about remembering the dead