NICOLA MILLER: We’re an odd lot with even odder history
I’m writing this on All Hallows Eve where night has drawn in early after a cement grey day. Tiny witches with stick-on warty noses, black gowns and feet still in school shoes are roaming the streets whilst pumpkin costumed babes in arms accompany them. They are watched over by tired looking parents who look, quite frankly, as if they would prefer to be sat at home in their favourite chair with a glass of the devils brew after another long day. But instead they keep a careful eye on their offspring as they go a haunting in streets which have taken on the glassy and unfamiliar patina of a rainy evening.
Also out are the Halloween haters, complaining about the ‘American-isation’ of the festival, that it “came here from ‘there’’’, sadly unaware of its long British history. (Go to the back of the history class and read up on Samhain, Lating, Lighting the Witches, Nut Crack Night and Mischief Night, all of which possess commonalities and would have been similarly noisy too.) The Celts believed that winter nights were a perfect playground for evil spirits: the barriers between the human and spirit world were thought to weaken, allowing spirits to walk the earth in search of dominion over the living. Bonfires were constructed to frighten these spirits away and people danced and feasted around them, believing that the flames brought comfort to souls in purgatory. I can imagine the ancestors of these misanthropes, grumpy about the noise and finding fault with what they think of as ‘customs from o’er the waters.’ I’m no fan of the more ghoulish costumes- some of which border on celebrating sadism, murder and the more debased human behaviours- but trick or treating did not arrive here “because of ET”, as one person gravely informed me. As a British tween in the late seventies, I trick or treated along with other neighbourhood kids and we had Halloween parties which merged into a glorious week of bonfires, fireworks and ghosts. We ate baked potatoes and got sticky from Parkin and toffee apples.
In Mexico where I spent some of my childhood, Dios de los Muertos possesses both strangeness and familiarity in retrospect. From October 27th onwards, each day saw ceremonies reflecting the Pre Hispanic belief that all life is engaged in a perpetual process of destruction and creation. We’d honour those who died from suicide, unborn babies and baptised babies (angelitos); those who had no relatives to mourn them, those who died violently or nobly. Shrines appeared in my school, local bodegas and in friends’ homes. An offrenda would be made to the spirits, “Pues el difunto podria volver ese día a la casa y hay que atenderlo bien.” (“You see, the deceased might return home that day so one has to look after them well”). The journey from Mictlan (the Aztec name of the Underworld) was long and tiring so a wash basin, mirror and grooming products accompanied the Ofrenda so spirits could cleanse themselves before joining in the festivities.
Noon bells tolled on November 1st as the spirit elders (The Faithful Dead) arrived home well before we all paraded to the local cemetery at dusk, accompanied by Mariarchi bands. The ceremonial meal started with clay jugs of corn based hot chocolate and we ate pork and squash stuffed tamales, skull shaped pan de muerto (anima) and candies made from sweetened, milk enriched pumpkin flesh. Families removed the dead from their tombs, washed and re-wrapped them and scattered marigold petals onto the shrouds, helped by neighbours in a celebration of grief, love and family. We children danced, played games, then fell asleep against the tombstones, covered in serapes to keep us warm in the desert night.
It’s the tension between familiarity and unfamilarity that Halloween possesses that so intrigues me- the ways in which people everywhere mark this time of year; the secular, the spiritual and the religious rituals. I’m drawn to life’s weirdness in general: architecture that spits in the face of straight lines (crinkle crankle walls, Tudor skewed wool towns) and writers of ghost tales set in spectre infested villages (Gt Livermere, MR James)/ There’s the mysterious doll figures embedded in the Abbey walls and a book bound in the skin of a murderer and kept in a local museum, (William Corder, Moyse’s Hall), the need to flirt with what we don’t understand and indeed, often frightens us. We’re an odd lot with an even odder history secreted away behind what appears to be, on the surface, a genteel town and Hallowe’en very much reflects that.