Now that Hallowe’en is over, the Petchary would like to speak up on behalf of an ancient tradition that is often much maligned on this island of Jamaica. Primarily by Christians – and I say this with emphasis, as they do themselves, possibly to emphasize their sense of superiority to the rest of us heathens. There we are, I’ve already started on a controversial note.
Hallowe’en – October 31 – was the last day of the Celtic year. As someone with more than a drop of Celtic blood in her veins, I don’t really appreciate people condemning the traditions that are a part of my cultural and indeed family heritage. I don’t disrespect other people’s traditions – and I think a little more understanding (and research/information/knowledge) would be nice. (It puzzles me that in this “age of information” one can still be so ill-informed. I guess it’s lazy thinking).
But I digress. The original Hallowe’en was the Celtic feast of Samhain. It goes back to the eighth century and even further back – some say to Roman times. A time of year when the nights draw in, the sunsets are richer and the shadows deeper. The end of the harvest and the beginning of winter. A time when thoughts turn inward, away from the material, towards the spiritual. OK so far? I think so. Evil and Satanic? I think not.
The odd thing about these Christian anti-Halloweeners is that they completely miss the point that, although this Celtic festival pre-dated Christianity, it was almost immediately absorbed into the Christian (Catholic) calendar and has always been recognized int (although the Puritans weren’t too happy with it in England for a time, but then they weren’t happy with a lot of things). Today, November 1, is All Saints’ Day and tomorrow is All Souls’ Day. Again, these days are a time to reflect on the spirit and its passing from this earthly life – and a time to pray for the dead.
What is wrong with honoring the dead? The Mexicans (and others) do it every year at the same time – the Dia de Los Muertos – they are doing it right now, putting flowers and sweet things on the graves of their ancestors. Sure, there are lots of skulls and macabre costumes, as there are in Hallowe’en, but it is a celebration and an honoring too. Now, I do wish Jamaicans would honor their dead more. If you look at “then and now” photos of Kingston’s May Pen Cemetery (the “now” being a wasteland) you would see what I mean. Respect for those who have gone before us is a part of All Hallows’ Day and All Saints’ Day – it is a time of mysterious connection, when the spirit world draws closer to us. A recognition of that world of spirits – that land of shadows. And that’s the “scary” part.
Where does the dressing-up part come from, and the trick or treating? Well, they are both connected and both originate from the belief that if you disguise yourself, those spirits won’t recognize you. Again, it goes back hundreds of years – it is not some silly new-fangled American thing. Trick or treating was called “guising” (as in disguise) and it is even mentioned in Shakespeare. And it has been a tradition in Scotland, Ireland and Cornwall (going back to the Celts again of course) for hundreds of years.
Now, my Christian friends always talk about the “Satanic” nature of Hallowe’en. But where does that come from? I grew up with Hallowe’en, and never was there any mention of “Old Nick” in that context (that was my grandmother’s name for him – an English expression that dates from the seventeenth century). He never came into the picture, nor does he in any of the Hallowe’en traditions that I know of (someone, please correct me if I’m wrong).
In fact, I have never heard so much talk of “Satan” as in Jamaica. When something won’t work out, it is blamed on Satan. I was rather startled when I first encountered his name in an everyday conversation, and I still do wonder why his name is recalled so often. Even gangsters call themselves Satan from time to time – the baddest of the bad, I guess. I think part of the confusion of Hallowe’en is the confusion of the “dark side” – the spirit world of ghosts, spirits, fairies and the like – with Satanism. But why? Jamaicans have their own incredible duppy stories too – the Rolling Calf sends shivers down my spine – but Satan doesn’t get mixed up in those legends. But then, there is no Christian origin to those stories either. All very complex.
And now for other Hallowe’en traditions, which you may or may not know. One of our favorites at home was “apple bobbing,” the kind of thing they would do on TV game shows these days to get people to make a fool of themselves. You had to kneel and grab an apple out of a bucket of water with your mouth, not using your hands. Of course apples were in season at that time of year, and there were the toffee apples (or candy apples as they are called in the U.S.). I remember as a child, in great fascination and excitement, watching my grandmother dipping the apples into the sticky, tawny-colored toffee, which she boiled up in a deep pan with dire warnings not to go anywhere near it.
Then there were the fancy-dress parties. The whole point that the Jamaican Christians are missing – sadly – is that in fact, Hallowe’en is tremendous (and quite harmless) fun. Their cries of “Satanism” and “evil” sound like killjoys.
We had fun. I would spend weeks planning my costume (always home-made, by my long-suffering mother) and we would have noisy, boisterous parties, pretending to be someone else. What kid doesn’t love dressing up? It is empowering. My parent would pretend to be scared by me and my raucous friends. And we felt safe and secure in our masks and crazy headgear. My best-ever costume was a scarecrow.
So please, give Hallowe’en a break. Try to understand and respect a tradition that is hundreds – if not thousands – of years old.
A little more tolerance. A little more understanding.
And remember there is the light, and there is the dark. All a part of life.