I know its a bit early but sure some shops have the Christmas stuff in already, but next weekend is Halloween. Halloween is one of those magical times of the year that have a lot of good childhood memories. Halloween is a big thing in Ireland, Americans only think they invented it but most of the traditions come from this wee place, well most are of celtic origin to do with the Samhain festival.
Of course we couldnt really celebrate a pagan festival of Samhain so we celebrate the catholic one of All Saints (1st November) or really we celebrate the evening of All Hallows Eve.
Taking it back to the 70s.. when I were a lad…
One of my first memories of Halloween was lying on our scullery (kitchen) floor in the dark with my sister (cant remember my brother being about) so I must have been 5 or under and my dad lighting a box of ‘indoor fireworks’. Now we werent allowed to have real fireworks, nothing to do with the big brother style health and safety lifestyles we have now but because people tended to scrape out all the good stuff, stick it in a metal pipe, light it and throw it at the nearest passing uniform. Probably why milkmen wore civilian clothes.
Going back to these ‘indoor fireworks’ the box was covered in surprised faces and pictures of bangs and explosions and all sort of wonderment. We now have an advertising body which stops such blatant lies. Remember as kids we had seen our fair share of real bangs and explosions, and they didnt compare to what I would describe as a worm falling out of burning toilet paper.
Even at 5 I knew these werent up to much so we just went back to burning our hands with sparklers that looked like they were out in the dark but which would still leave wee white intense burn marks on our fingers for weeks.
Sparklers. Yes whilst we were practically falling over packs of gelignite (thats another story) we were relegated for 17 years to just sparklers. Indeed it would be another 7 or so years before we could legally purchase fireworks and not pick them up off lorry drivers from Scotland at roundabouts or from the back of dark warehouses down in central Belfast in the wee small hours.
I never did this, people just told me about it. I would never buy illegal fireworks, split the boxes into two piles, one for us and the other to sell at twice the price to get our money back. No, that would be illegal.
Before this American pish of ‘trick or treat’ (more later) became ‘our’ culture, we had the ritual of ‘Halloweens coming on’. Which consisted of all us kids going round in small groups in what to todays kids might seem like rags and singing ‘Halloweens coming on and the goose is getting fat, would you please put a penny in the aul mans hat, if you havent got a penny a hapenny will do, if you havent got a hapenny then God bless you and your aul man too’. Now we knew what a penny was but a hapenny was something our Granny would go on about. Besides which no-one every gave you money. You cant eat money – dont be daft! Most times our costumes consisted of a sheet and a cheap plastic mask which never fitted your face and would cut the eyes out of you. I remember being about 12 and graduating onto a rubber skeleton mask which actually fitted my face. I thought it would be a great idea to put a torch down the front of my anorak shining the light up onto the skeleton face. A lot of the old folk had glass windows in their doors and them all being deeply religious and the fact it was also all souls eve probably led to most of them saying their final prayers and getting their coats.
The idea of the ghosts and ghouls, witches etc comes from the idea of the all souls eve where the souls of the dead were supposed to walk the earth, so we dress up to blend in. Quite where the ‘Scream’ masks come in is beyond me.
As Ive hinted most times we would go round collecting monkey nuts, oranges, apples and the odd fancy thing like chocolates, sweeties, and things like brazil and walnuts. The brazil and walnuts were exotic, although my dad insisted many times in getting us a coconut for halloween – I dont think thats an Irish thing unless the british stole all our coconut trees as well – wouldnt put it past them. Generally though giving us brazil nuts and walnuts was a waste of time as nutcrackers were probably yet to be invented and the two methods of opening anything were to hit it with a half brick or stab it with a hot poker. Both methods ensured I never tasted brazil nuts or walnuts until my early 20s.
After the rounds of the streets we’d go home for the Halloween party which consisted of dumping our swag onto the table and eating our way through it along with the obligatory fractured pieces of coconut and try to avoid the burnt bits.
Party games were the order of the day and there was the obligatory dunking for apples which was our old plastic bath filled with water and apples thrown in. The idea was to keep trying to take a bite out of the floating apples. Great craic and guaranteed a soaking. A version of this was to have one apple hanging from the ceiling on a string and try to do the same with arms tied behind our backs. Sod your nintendo DS, this was the best craic of the lot. There was an odd game with coins in the bottom of the bath which you had to get out using a spoon but only with the spoon in your mouth. I kept banging it off my teeth and wasnt too keen on that one.
Now, the lanterns. The legend Ive been told is that there was a guy called jack who used to traipse round the place with a lantern made out of an aul turnip with a bit of burning coal looking to take away souls or people, wander the earth like grasshopper or just generally get up to no good. The Jack of the lantern (jack-o-lantern) fame. So we would (or rather my dad would) carve a lantern out of a turnip and stick a candle in it and that would be for us to tell Jack to sling his hook. When the irish immigrants went to America they couldnt get turnips but the pumpkins were all round the place and they were bigger and easier to carve so thats where the pumpkin part comes from. Having spent the best part of today carving both for these photos I have to agree the pumpkin is a lot easier, less blood, less sweat but there will be tears if I dont sell any photos after all that.
We had all sorts of other things like toffee apples, which were just apples covered in toffee/candy with a stick stuck in them. Guaranteed to rot your teeth and probably break a few of them in the process.
Traditionally Halloween is also associated with bonfires in the rest of Ireland but in the west of Belfast we had enough burning going on around us so that sort of died out, but its something I try to revive every year in my own back garden (over a few whiskeys of course – health and safety be damned). You can take the boy out of the Falls…
Speaking of which, in my teens we would go up to Casement Park which had one of the few legal fireworks displays we could go to. Our equivalent of a bonfire. The bonfire night in England was moved from Halloween to 5th November because of that Guy Fawkes bloke.
Later on there was the annual trip up to Derry which does Halloween like no other place on earth. In the years I went up, if you didnt dress up, you were the odd one out. 100,000 people all dressed up roaming about the place has to be seen to be believed. What also has to be seen to be believed is the morning after the night before when full grown adults dressed as witches standing at bus and taxi stops with makeup all ran, clothes dischevelled. What were the up to?
Of course what goes on tour, stays on tour but on Halloween night you cant get a taxi for love nor money so being in a tired and emotional state I decided to walk back to my lodgings. This walk included walking over one of the city bridges and half way across I stopped to take in the view. A few seconds later I heard the ‘are you allright’ from behind me and there was one of the derry bridge rescue service or whatever their official title is, basically good natured souls who give up their time of an evening to stand on the bridges and try to convince people not to jump off. Fair enough I was standing there in black boots, huge black cape and a batman mask. My black eye makeup had long since ran down my face so yes I can see where he was coming from.
What he didnt bargain on was this wee female voice coming from inside my cloak saying ‘yes, we are ok, its just a bit cold’. I had decided to escort this young lady home that evening and she was dressed as a genie or something, well she was wearing very little and although I was carrying her on my back, she was almost blue by the bridge so she was wrapped up in the cloak.
Im sure that guy has seen worse…
Nowadays we get kids coming round doing ‘trick or treat’ which consists of them putting in sod all effort or the rich kids in their full costumes bought somewhere off the net (yes I have to say my darth maul and batman costumes are the same), rapping the door and just grunting and sticking their hand out for cash. Now. Lets just say I firmly believe in earning your pay, so a wee song or a dance would suffice, or even part of a one act play or dance installation isnt really asking too much. Im sorry but ‘trick or treat’ is very likely to be met with the equivalent of ‘bah humbug’ or ‘F**k off’ as its known.
Oh and when I open the door and hand over handfulls of nuts, satsumas or sweeties and some wee shit says ‘is that all, wheres the money’, they are likely to be stabbed. Glad to say though that the trainee drug dealers are in the minority and they are outnumbered by the large numbers of well mannered kids who are just happy to get anything. I dont remember my mum and dad accompanying us round the doors and this was a time of bombs and bullets flying more than fireworks, so I’ll not take it as an insult when the dad stays at the bottom of my drive just to check if Im a child molester or not.
For the record Im not.. well.. not in the way it sounds.
2 years ago one of the charm school rejects decided that a couple of peanuts and an orange wasnt enough so he decided to do the ‘trick’ part and hit my window with an egg. Now. Most kids would run away and not stand at the bottom of the drive to laugh and taunt the hapless house owners. Also standing there with a box of a dozen eggs, half used tells me this guy isnt the sharpest tool in the box.
Of course this educationally sub normal cretin doesnt realise that for every action theres an equal and opposite reaction but this reaction wasnt exactly equal. Trick or treat cuts both ways so the collection of already filled water balloons I had behind the door came in handy and I even surprised myself the feracity and accuracy of this particular barrage.
Now lets be honest whilst this behaviour was probably socially acceptable in my late teens, even through uni days, its not really expected from a then nearing 40 ‘aul fella’. Still, what can you do.
Whilst I now fully relish the ‘grumpy aul man’ moniker, I reserve the right to stop traffic next week and stand in the middle of the street and have a full on lightsabre battle with one of my mates. Of course we are just doing it for the kids/nephews/bystanders benefit…..
…sure where else would you get it. Halloweens coming on…