Celebrating Halloween, as we know it, here in Portugal is a relatively new social phenomenon. Witches and ghouls galore, kids’ parties, commercial tra la la. This concept doesn’t mean anything to the Portuguese. Thank globalisation for this commercial orgy.
Halloween here is usually spent at the cemetery in preparation for All Saints’ Day, 1 November. On this day, the cemetery will be alive with activity and the smell of bleach. Come rain or shine the family grave will be washed and scrubbed till it shines, a whole year of dirt and grime and green mossy gunge will be spurged. A ton of fresh flowers will be carefully arranged on each grave and candles lit ready for the church service which will be held the next day in the cemetery.
No-one will admit it but there is of course a fair amount of competition to see who’s spent the most on flowers or who’s done the best flower arrangements.
On 1 November, the cemetery will look like a market place with vendors of alcoholic drinks, hot dogs, roast chestnuts, candles, etc., outside and hundreds of people inside. People will turn up hours before to get a parking space just outside the gates and take folding chairs to sit on. It’s a time for catching up with the local gossip and family news and is quite a sociable occasion really, considering why everyone’s there in the first place. It is, of course, a time to remember the dead and pay homage to our loved ones.
Portuguese cemeteries are worth a visit on any day of the year but especially on this day, or just after, to see the amazing flower arrangements and well-tended graves. Even the nameless paupers’ graves will have been tended with fresh flowers and candles lit. I hope this is one of the traditions that will never change.
So what does Halloween mean to people in other parts of the world? Roast chestnuts, mulled wine, fake blood, witches’ Sabbaths, just another excuse for a party?
I googled Halloween and came up with Operation Pagan. Has Halloween been given a Hollywood makeover? Is it George Clooney’s latest offering? No, alas, it’s much more mundane and all too familiar.
The curse of Operation Pagan
A police force has renamed its latest crime crackdown to avoid offending heathens.
It had seemed a good idea for Kent police to name the six-week campaign Operation Pagan because it coincided with Halloween. However, the force had not reckoned with the Pagan Federation, which said the name of the operation, to tackle vandalism and violence linked to longer autumn nights, was offensive.
Brian Botham, a spokesman for the federation, said: “They wouldn’t have called it Operation Christian, Operation Jew or Operation Muslim. So why Operation Pagan?”
A police spokesman said: “We’re sorry if the name caused distress.”
The operation has been renamed Excalibur. “We’re waiting for some Arthurian society to complain that we’re besmirching Camelot,” said one officer.
(David Sapsted, Daily Telegraph, 8 October 2005)
Love the tongue in cheek comment at the end about the Arthurian society! Oh well, it was a nice try. You just can’t please anyone these days, it seems.
Anyway, back to Hallow E’en (Irish), Hallowe’en (Scottish), Nos Galen-gaeof (Welsh) and of course, Halloween (English). All Hallows Eve, the night before All Hallows or All Saints’ Day – 1 November. “Hallow” meaning “sanctify” in old English. aka All Hallow’s Eve, Hallowmas, Day of the Dead, Third Harvest, Hallowstide, and, of course, Celtic New Year.
The furthest back we can go to find the roots of Halloween is to the Celtic festival of Samhain (summer’s end) which was the opposite of Beltane. Samhain was also known as the Druid Fire Festival or Feast of the Sun. The ancient Celtic calendar had only two divisions, summer (Beltane to Samhain) and winter (Samhain to Beltane). If you’re Irish, Samhain is pronounced “sow-in” (as in cow), in Wales it’s pronounced “sow-een” and in Scotland, “sav-en”. Apparently the Americans pronounce it “sam-hane”, sounds like the fastest gun in the west from a spaghetti western! Mind you, I don’t know what I’m getting superior about, I’m a pom and would also say “sam-hane” if I hadn’t already been enlightened by the previous couple of lines!!!
In Latin countries, the eve of a festival is always more important than the actual day. Halloween is one of two festivals in non-Latin countries to follow this tradition, the other being New Year’s Eve, quite appropriate really because Samhain is also the Celtic New Year. The Celtic New Year paid homage to those who had died during the previous year and looked forward to the future. It was ancient belief that for this one night of the year the dead could, if they wished, return to the land of the living to celebrate with their family, tribe or clan. Extra places were set at tables for the visiting dead. Perhaps that’s where the idea of laying an extra place for absent friends originally comes from. Interestingly, the ancient Egyptians and pre-Spanish Mexicans also celebrated the dead on the same day.
Some of the Roman celebrations which took place in October included Feralia which also honoured the dead and in the first century AD, the Celtic and Roman celebrations were merged. Another Roman celebration which took place in October honoured Pomona (Roman goddess of fruit and trees) and this might explain the tradition of bobbing for apples at Halloween.
The Christians had a damn good try but failed miserably at attempting to wipe out the Pagan cults and traditions until in the 7th century, Pope Gregory I changed strategy and decided to use the Pagan customs and beliefs to his advantage. All Saints’ Day was marked on the 1st and All Souls’ Day on 2 November. Not content with hijacking the Pagan feast days, the Druids were branded as evil and the Celtic underworld identified as the Christian Hell. Followers of the ancient ways went into hiding and were branded as witches. The rest is history.
Want a really authentic Halloween experience? Try this. Put your clothes on inside out and walk backwards on Halloween night. At midnight, you’ll see a witch.
Ladies, how about a bit of divination? Place some hazel nuts along the front of the fire grate, one for each boyfriend! To find out which one you’ll marry, all you have to do is chant “If you love me, pop and fly; if you hate me, burn and die.” Don’t blame me though if they all burn and die.
Here’s another one. Slice an apple through the middle (horizontally, not vertically) – you should see a five-pointed star inside! Eat it by candlelight in front of a mirror. Your future husband will appear over your shoulder. Euch, a bit creepy that one. Well, at least if he does appear in the mirror, you’ll know he’s not a vampire.
We used to do this one when we were kids. Peel an apple in one go. Don’t break the peel so you’re left with a long, curly snake. At the same time, recite “I pare this apple round and round again, My sweetheart’s name to flourish on the plain, I fling the unbroken paring o’er my head, My sweetheart’s letter on the ground to read.” Now I know why it never worked for me, we didn’t recite anything but just threw it over our shoulders and it still looked like a long, curly snake on the floor.
Or even … If you just happen to have a spare snail hanging around, make it crawl through the ashes of your fire (cold ashes, please). It’ll spell out the initial letter of your beloved as it moves, assuming it’s literate, of course.
Now, if you’d been condemned to walk the earth for all eternity ‘cos neither God nor the Devil wanted you, what would you do? Well, there was this Irishman whose fate was no better and he very cleverly hollowed out a turnip and put a glowing coal in it to light his way. Our ancestors obviously thought this was a good idea so pinched the idea to light their way to Halloween parties. If there were no turnips around, swedes (rutabagas), large beets or mangel-wurzels could be used but they weren’t very easy to hollow out which is why we use pumpkins today. A lot easier, methinks.
Whilst we’re on the subject of food, turnips, apples, nuts, beef, pork, poultry and gingerbread are the order of the day at Halloween, washed down with mead, apple cider, mulled cider and mulled wines. If you’ll be doing any herbalising then angelica, burdock, catnip, pennyroyal, rosemary, rue, sunflower, sage, thyme, wild ginseng, tarragon and mugwort are what you’ll need. Sounds like an all-female football team from Hogwarts! For flowers, calendula, chrysanthemum, cosmos and marigold. (They’ll be the ref and lineswomen perhaps)
Whatever you do this Halloween, have a really good time. Make a mental note to drive up the coast this weekend to buy my pumpkin before they all go!