Saturday, 31 October 2009

Autumn: Hallowe'en

Tonight is the night when dead leaves fly...
The main calendar event of autumn, crouching at the end of October like a black cat peering into November and the beginning of winter is Hallowe’en (a term which derives from “All Hallows Eve”).

Originally a Celtic festival, Hallowe’en is now particularly associated with America, and elements of the US version have become globalised, mainly through our familiarity with films and TV shows. The key elements of Hallowe’en are now quite familiar, although some of their significance has been lost (or mangled) in cultural translation:

(S)mashing Pumpkins
Look in the window of any shop at this time of year and the chances are you will see a sinister grinning face cut out of an enormous pumpkin – perhaps with a light inside producing a supernatural glow from the eyes and serrated teeth. (This is known in North America as a Jack-o'-lantern.)

Although pumpkins are fairly common throughout Europe and North America throughout the year they seem to come into their own at Hallowe’en. Part of the botanical family that includes zucchini, courgettes and marrows, pumpkins make excellent autumn/ winter dishes and can be sliced, diced, mashed, boiled and baked. As well as making great comfort food (something hot and filling which is quite simple and unsophisticated), pumpkins feature in the traditional Thanksgiving dinner in North America.

In Italy, pumpkins seem significant merely for their seeds - and as the source material for self-consciously foreign Jack-o'-lanterns, visible mainly in shops and bars. Zucca (Italian for pumpkin) happens to be the name of the iconic cafĂ© in the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele in Milan’s Piazza Duomo, where Gaspare Campari launched his eponymous drink.)

Trick or treat?
Trick or treat (often used in the phrase "to go trick or treating") is the main activity associated with Hallowe'en. Let's have a quick look at the what the words trick and treat mean first:

  • A treat is something very nice (and usually unexpected). For example, if a child at school gets excellent grades in the end of year tests, their parents may take them to a theme park or the cinema as a treat. You can also treat someone to something, such as a free meal in a restaurant – or, indeed, you can treat yourself, or give yourself a treat.
    (Note that treat also has the completely different meaning of “give medical attention / care to”, e.g. a doctor can treat a patient for a disease or other condition, such as chronic (long-term) backache.)
  • A trick is the complete opposite. If you trick someone (or play a trick on them) it means you do something horrible to upset that person.
On Hallowe’en children wearing fancy dress (including witches' hats, vampire teeth, skeleton costumes, devil masks and anything else supernatural or creepy) knock on people’s doors and shout “Trick or treat!”. The person inside the house can either choose to give the children a small gift or risk having a trick played on them. Typical tricks might include strewing toilet paper all over their garden, spraying silly string over their front door, knocking over their rubbish bins or sealing up their letter box with wax. (In Britain, depending on the socio-economic status of the neighbourhood and the region the occupant of the house may either put this down (attribute) to youthful exuberance or start an argument which can escalate into a full-scale dispute with the police being called.
Conversely, trick or treat is a well-established and accepted part of North American culture (where it originates from in its modern form). People prepare for the arrival of the trick or treaters by baking little cakes and making sweets which they hand out to their ghoulish visitors. In Britain the tradition has never really been integrated into the cultural life of the nation, so people are uncertain how to react to having a gang of vampires and ghouls turn up (arrive) on their doorstep. A lot of children simply take the occasion as an opportunity to demand some loose change, while those in more deprived areas might actually use the situation as a chance to settle scores on unpopular neighbours or to terrorise older residents, many of whom don’t really understand what the whole thing is about.

(On the topic of socially-accepted forms of manic but non-threatening behaviour, I have to say that I found the celebrations in Milan for Carnevale in February something of a revelation. The soft-centred - and largely alcohol-free - daytime festivities in Piazza Duomo (intended mainly for children) are a riot with thousands of people "attacking" each other with confetti (coriandoli) and silly string – but without any of the associated tensions or public order problems that usually marr similar events in the UK (in particular the Notting Hill Carnival). I think this will be a future (seasonal) blog post.)
Monster Munch
Hallowe’en parties seem to be mainly either the preserve of either children or an excuse for clubbers to dress up as ghouls and vampires at a themed event. As with 5th November, there isn’t an associated holiday, widely-observed religious festival like Christmas (but see All Saints Day below) or critical secular moment, such as New Year’s Eve (particularly on the following day) so the prospect of a wild celebration followed by what could be a working day has little appeal to people who have already left school or have only just heard of Facebook.
However, a few traditions survive, notably traditional Hallowe’en games, such as “bobbing for apples”, which involves biting an apple floating around in a bowl of water – try it: it’s harder than it sounds.
Incidentally, All Saints Day on the 1st November and All Souls Day on the 2nd are purely religious occasions for churchgoers in the UK – very much a minority of the population. All Souls Day, which is hugely significant here in Italy, seems to be a particularly Catholic occasion. There is no UK equivalent of the streams of Italian families tidying up relatives' graves and placing bunches of fresh flowers on them in preparation for the main All Souls Day - or the all-night graveside vigils held throughout the (particularly Spanish-speaking) Catholic world.)

Is there anyone there?
Both Hallowe’en and All Souls Day are characterised by radically different ways of thinking about death, the after-life and the “other side” in general. Whereas Hallowe’en is treated as a bit of a laugh – with kids dressing up as characters from the Adams Family – All Souls Day is a serious, sombre occasion in countries where the Church is still highly influential. However, in a largely secular country like Britain – and in the non-religious sections of North American society – the “big questions” still need to be addressed: life, the universe and everything. Perhaps the folk culture of the past, pagan traditions and modern horror films that draw on ancient superstitions and legends seem more palatable to those who have little or no connection with conventional organised religion. Just as Dan Brown tapped into a vast subterranean reservoir of secular interest in things spiritual and religious by means of the best-selling mystery thrillerThe Da Vinci Code” – so the appearance of miniature mummies, ghosts and Freddie Krugers at Hallowe’en could represent one aspect of a nagging secular suspicion that there might be something more to life than PSPs, Nikes and Chicken McNuggets®.


  1. italian food is the best!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. It's such a fascinating celebration and more than a pagan event (as most Christians say), especially cause it traces back its origins to the Celts. Interesting grammar references about "trick or treat", too! ;)