A few years ago, we broke a flight to Australia with a short stopover in Singapore. It was Halloween when we arrived and impossible not to know it. Bright orange pumpkins, black silhouettes of bats and tangles of giant spiders’ webs had invaded public spaces, shops and restaurants. It was the same plastic tat as at home but, being Singapore, applied more thoroughly.
The following morning, we woke up and it was Christmas. Overnight, all the evidence of ripening fruits and witchcraft had disappeared, to be replaced by Norway Spruce trees, snow, and robins. A stereotypical northern winter had replaced the bright colours of an imaginary autumn.
I’ve thought about this odd conjunction off and on over the years. I’ve wondered what people living in the tropics made of this pastiche of seasonal change in temperate latitudes. Most residents would never have seen a robin, still less snow. What sense did it make to them? On the other hand I’ve never seen a woman with a pointed hat riding on a broomstick. Few people anywhere will have seen a sleigh pulled by reindeer. What sense does it make to any of us?
The ’sense’, if that is the right word, is largely commercial. Halloween can, if you insist, be traced to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain and the superimposed Christian celebration of All Saints Day (or All Hallows Eve, hence Halloween) Unlike Christmas however, where the religious festival on which it is based remains visible and important to many despite rampant commercialisation, Halloween is largely detached from its past. It’s about scary things and pumpkins and going out in the dark to extort sweets from neighbours.
It has only recently become important in the UK. When I was a boy, it was bonfire night that mattered. We scarcely gave Halloween a second thought as we scavenged our surroundings for anything combustible. We spent weeks assembling and guarding our spoils. The more ambitious begged “a penny for the guy” and spent it on fireworks. We made lanterns, but from swedes rather than squash.
Bonfire night, sadly but sensibly, has been sanitised out of existence. As a consequence of a very real risk of injury, setting off fireworks is no longer an activity for small boys. Their role has been supplanted, first by sensible elders and now, largely, by a cast of professionals. It has become a spectacle to be observed, not a ritual to be enacted.
For all the tawdry commercialism associated with Halloween, therefore, I can’t be wholly critical. For the young participants there is still the thrill of venturing into the unfamiliar dark, fighting the fear of what might be out there. Carving your own lantern is an act of creation not just consumption. Above all, going out round the houses at night is something you do, not something you watch.