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02 Dec 2021

Halloween - a look at an age old tradition that is still celebrated in the modern world

From 'false faces' in the 1980s to all out creativity

Halloween - a look at an age old tradition that is still celebrated in the modern world

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A few days ago I watched my teenage daughter carve a pumpkin while I was making dinner.

I was cutting up a turnip, not something that I buy a lot as I find them hard to peel. Indeed, a chef friend once told me that nothing ruins a knife like a turnip.

I couldn’t help but think about how much easier the pumpkin is to carve than the turnip Jack O’Lanterns that people made in Donegal years ago. 

One of my own earliest memories of Halloween is of watching my father hollow out and carve a turnip with his pocket knife before putting a candle into it and hanging it up. I am still in awe of his patience. As I said, turnips are not the easiest thing to work with!

My late mother loved Halloween, and we went all out to celebrate it. Not by today’s standards of course, but certainly against the backdrop of the late seventies and early eighties, Halloween was a big deal in our house.

Games included apple bobbing and hanging apples from a string and trying to catch them with our teeth. 

We would usually have nice apples at this time of year, maybe a bag of russet apples bought from Foodland supermarket, or a bag of delicious Armagh apples from the roadside vendors that brought the Orchard County’s delicious fruit around the country every autumn.

The cooking apples from our own trees would be used to make delicious apple tarts, with ‘silver’ coins concealed inside - a real treat for those lucky enough to find them; though in hindsight, I realise that they were carefully placed amidst the fruit in such a way that everyone got a coin.

Hazelnuts would be gathered from nearby trees, most of them picked up from where they had fallen on the ground, bringing the rich smell of leaf litter and autumnal forests into the house.

The only things I remember us buying from the shops were the barm brack, a bag of monkey nuts and masks which we referred to as ‘false faces.’

By the time I first heard the term ‘trick or treat’ I was coming towards the end of primary school.

Someone explained the concept to me - you called to people’s houses and if they didn’t give you a treat, you played a trick on them. I remember getting dressed up in the most fashionable Halloween costume of the  1980s, the bin bag, and heading out with a few friends. 

I was quite worried about the idea of playing a mean trick on someone just because they didn’t give you sweets but fortunately that didn’t happen and my one and only trick or treating experience was a success.

This time of year has long been associated with the dead, and with superstitions relating to the Otherworld. In countries such as Mexico this is taken to a whole other level with the Day of the Dead festivities. Here in Ireland too, the dead are celebrated at All Soul’s Day, giving us another example of where pre-Christian festivals and traditions have blended relatively seamlessly with Christian feast days.

The tradition of telling ghost stories  is very much tied to those traditions, with the older children in the area taking great pleasure in scaring the bejesus out of the younger ones. 

Nowadays, ghost stories are still popular, though they are more likely to take the form of Halloween being celebrated with a horror movie night. 

Modern technology has added to the celebrations in other ways too. In my family, we  start playing our Halloween Spotify playlist once we are into October, and it gets added to  every year.

Spooky lights, automated toys, light up broomsticks, and a whole range of other gizmos and gadgets are widely available and all add to the fun. 

Shops go all out with their Halloween decorations, to great effect. I remember when one of my girls was small she became very frightened going past a particular shop in Donegal Town, asking me if I had seen the ‘scary lady’ in the window. I went back to take a look and discovered a very lifelike witch on her broom.

Before Covid, the shops were packed with Halloween costumes in all shapes and sizes from early September. You could find a costume for pretty much anything, and any number of accessories to go along with it. 

The shops would also be packed with sweets and treats in ghoulish colours and Halloween packaging.

Like so much else in life, the pandemic brought that to a halt, and last Halloween saw us return to a less commercial type of celebration. Having fun with home bakes and bringing out our creativity to come up with our own costumes was a welcome change from all the spending and waste. 

We can still enjoy some of the modern benefits, such as carving pumpkins instead of turnips, or playing our Halloween music loudly in the car! But it has been nice to rekindle our creativity and to put our own personality into our costumes and decorations.

Whatever way you choose to celebrate it, Happy Halloween.

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