The humbug of Halloween

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Without wishing to appear unduly grumpy I can’t be alone in thinking that the Americanisation of our culture seems to approach its zenith or nadir (depending on how you look at it) at this time of year with trick or treating. And reflecting on this last weekend I’m inclined to think that surely we can do better than this?

And without being overly dramatic this is not simply a shame. It’s a tragedy. Halloween has a long and colourful history. It has been celebrated in Wales since pre-Roman times and like many of our modern festivals has been both a pagan and Christian festival rooted in the changing seasons and onset of winter. Today the the Welsh Nos Galon Gaeaf still reminds us of these early traditions.

My childhood memories of Halloween are mainly of ducking apples and the pain of trying to carve a face out of a turnip. I knew no-one who had a pumpkin in those days. Today Halloween now seems to last a month and is dominated by a dreadful commercialisation, trick or treating and a variety of outlandish costumes. I remain unconvinced that “sexy corn-on-the-cob” is an appropriate dress for anyone at any time of the year.
And the growth of Halloween has also seen the decline of Bonfire Night as a national event in our public culture and consciousness. I spent many weeks dragging a guy around the streets of Tredegar, hoping that my father would not recognise the trousers that had been stuffed with newspaper but can’t remember the last time I saw a child with a guy asking for a “penny for the guy”. Again I recognise that not everyone approves of some of this imagery but it is a part of our shared history in these islands.

Now I am usually someone who welcomes American cultural influences and certainly have never been convinced by those who would seek to create a false choice between an American or European future. I’ve never felt it necessary to choose. I like parts of both. Our politics has a lot to learn from America in terms of openness and accountability. Our wider public culture can learn a lot about citizenship and equality. But the suffocation of our history and the importation of a commercialisation that reduces a 2,000 year tradition to a cut and paste, takeaway and throwaway evening is for me probably a step too far. Here we have more to learn from our friends on the European mainland of the importance of creating and protecting a space for our traditional culture and customs.

Instead of this ready-made superficiality of Halloween I would prefer my children to enjoy learning of a festival which teaches us about our history and our own rich Welsh and Celtic traditions. Samhain, the Celtic New Year, is probably the best-known of our early traditions dating back to pre-Roman times. It was from this festival that our Jack O’lanterns are derived as is the tradition of dressing up, wearing masks and other disguises to avoid being recognised by the ghosts that may be thought to be present. It was Samhain that gave us much of the richness of Halloween and the associations with witches, hobgoblins, fairies, and various other demons. It was also a time when the souls of those who had died were believed to return to visit their homes, leading to people lighting bonfires to frighten away evil spirits.

Today’s Nos Galan Gaeaf echoes these traditions and memories. A night when spirits walk the earth and where the ghosts of the dead will appear at midnight. In some parts of Wales, the ghost was often the Ladi wen (white lady), elsewhere it could have been the more frightening Hwch ddu gwta (tail-less black sow) that appeared. Again huge bonfires would be lit on the hillsides to offer protection. Today’s traditions of ducking apples also have these ancient roots with apples and potatoes used to celebrate the event.

I also fully recognise that my hated trick or treat also has its roots in this history and there are certainly well-documented traditions of groups of youths dressing up in women’s clothes with the girls in men’s clothing, wandering from house to house after dark, chanting verses and soliciting gifts of fruit or nuts. In other areas young men would dress up in sheepskins and old ragged clothes and disguise or blacken their faces. After chanting some rhymes, they would be given gifts of apples or nuts or if they were lucky some beer. These groups, the gwrachod (witches), again speak of the associations of visiting spirits and the dead. Not surprisingly the visits of these groups were taken seriously as indicators of good tidings for the forthcoming year and the expulsion of the bad spirits from the household. Again our customs speaks of an ancient oral historical tradition where these stories are passed down the generations as a community culture and not one supported by governments and the state.

So I would prefer to not allow our history to be packed up and resold as someone else’s modern tradition. My fear is that unless we are clear and determined that we wish to create a Wales that is not only prosperous in economic terms but also prosperous in social and cultural terms then this culture will become simply the stuff of history text-books and we will all be the poorer.

But rejecting these particular cultural imports of our American friends is not by itself sufficient. I remember Gwyn Alf Williams speaking of the importance for today of a country that knows and understands its own history and cultural inheritance. In Wales we can trace this inheritance further into history in a way that few modern nations are able to do. And remembering our past and reinventing our traditions for the present and the future is something that in Wales we have done for nearly two millennia. The key today is to not simply hold onto these traditions and customs but to reinvent them for a new age.