This week sees one of my favourite nights of the year which also happens to fall on a Saturday this year for maximum fun...it is of course Halloween! Night of ghouls and ghosties and all that.
I particularly love this time of year with its crisp fresh air, golden cornflake-like leaves and stunning purplish dusk, so Halloween seems like a excuse to enjoy and embrace the glories of autumn as much as anything. A last gasp of fun before winter in fact.
Growing up in Northern Ireland in the 80s and 90s, October 31st was a big deal. There has been a celebration at this time of the year in Ireland since Pagan times when it would have been known as Samhain, and the day has remained relevant as All Hallow's Eve even now. The traditionally English festival of Guy Fawkes' or Bonfire Night on the 5th November was utterly alien to us in comparison, simply something I read about in Enid Blyton books or were briefly taught in school. (Probably wise that in those years of the Troubles, no one encouraged us to embrace a holiday involving treason and high explosives...)
Instead it was all about Halloween. Both Catholics and Protestants seemed to embrace it equally which was unusual in a divided country. It tended to co-incide with half term holidays from school which allowed some serious time for costume prep and a real sense of social occasion when you went to a party as you hadn't spent the whole day together already. There were always bowls of fresh nuts in the house to be cracked with proper nutcrackers and glistening toffee apples wrapped in shiny cellophane waiting to be devoured with greedy gusto on the night.
The great treat on the day was getting to carve the lantern which was not a cheery orange pumpkin in those days, but a grimacing purple turnip (or what the English call a swede.) Being allowed to hollow out this most unforgiving of vegetables with a surprisingly sharp knife for a child and a spoon made you feel very grown up: at least for about the first fifteen minutes and after that it felt positively Sisyphean. Kids these days don't know they're living with the arrival of the pumpkin...
But on the night with the turnip lantern glowing in the gloaming, the real fun would begin. Some years there were Halloween parties at friends' house, or sometimes there would be an organised firework display at school. Both these events required a costume and my mum created some masterpieces for us, including a complete Pink Panther outfit on one memorable year. Made from cosy pink fleece and totally head-turning, it may well be the best outfit I have worn in my life, ever!
Wrapped up against the October elements, the night was ours for the taking. There were small people swaddled in all kinds of garb everywhere you looked, running round with sparklers, or gazing in fascination at the fireworks overhead ( a real novelty since fireworks were illegal the rest of the year due to their pesky explosive nature). But the best fun of a Halloween night out was trick or treating...often your parents lurked in the shadows watching aswe picked our way up a garden path to assail some poor household with a badly recited poem or song in return for a handful of fun sized chocolate bars. For me, the excitement lay less in the song and dance routine, and more in the feeling of freedom that trick or treating seemed to offer to an eight year old who rarely had the opportunity to roam the streets at night otherwise.
Not every Halloween involved going out (I'm guessing the famous Irish weather may have played a part in this) but staying in was equally fantastic as it involved the ritual of indoor fireworks which I looked forward to all year . We would turn down the lights and be hypnotised by such exotic creations as Dragon's Breath, Blazing Bengals and Snakes Alive coming to fiery life in front of our very eyes with only assorted gasps of amazement to punctuate the palpable tension...
Or more accurately two children hopped up on sugar gazed upon a tin tray dotted with bits of gaudy cardboard that managed to emit a brief light and a strange extuberance of ash that generally looked remarkably scatological in shape, interpersed with oversized matches that burned green and mini sparklers that looked slightly like snake's fangs before they were lit. It was to all intents and purposes a slightly flammable anti-climax. But I loved them, probably for their inherent crappiness and the marvellous kitsch factor involved.
After this there would be the traditional Halloween dish of apple dumpling which had been steamed for hours in a cloth til it was stickily delicious and filled with spicy cloves and five pence pieces for good luck. There may have been scary stories or maybe the flickering candle light and feeling of possibility on this night just made me imagine ghosts and goblins as I went to bed on All Hallow's Eve.
I still love Halloween, even though people bemoan its Americanisation and adults tend to use it as an excuse to wear something revealing while getting drunk. The fact that so many Halloween traditions originally came from Ireland (before being imported to the USA with Irish immigrants and then recently introduced to the rest of the UK as an excuse to sell stuff) makes me feel oddly homesick for Ireland in a way that St Patrick's Day never manages.
I haven't done anything specifically for Halloween in a few years now that I spend more time with English people, but this year I'm going to a proper party and need a good costume. I intend to plan it tomorrow as I carve my pumpkin...I'm hoping I'll be as excited as I was as a child come the big night!