Saturday, 31 October 2015

The Souring of Samhain?

Homegrown pumpkin carved by yours truly
Hallowe'en has long been a bugbear for Christians, but now it seems that Pagans are starting to feel troubled by it as well. In the latest issue of Pagan Dawn, the journal of the Pagan Federation, the editor has the following to say:
Talking with friends about their plans for Samhain, I hear more an more concerns about the creeping commercialisation of the season. The pernicious march of globalisation brings in its wake a wave of bland Americana. It is not that we expect everyone to celebrate just as we do, or that we object to our children dressing up and making mischief. It is the loss of what makes this season special, even sacred...
Later on in the same publication, a Pagan policeman, peeved by the difficulty he experiences in getting time off to celebrate Samhain on a night in which "the police almost have to double their presence", views the last day of October from a law and order perspective:
Something stirs in the communal psyche, making people think throwing flour, eggs and conkers at houses, cars and passers-by is perfectly acceptable, and making demands with menaces on the doorstep of the vulnerable or elderly is okay.
I'm not talking about the usual trick-or-treaters, hyped up on a year's worth of sugar and herded by exhausted parents; I'm talking about people in their late teens in 99p masks wanting money.
Instead of Hallowe'en being the holy day Catholicism hoped for, it has become a confused conglomeration of indigenous elements, American commercialism and criminality in which neither Pagan roots nor Catholic interpretation play a part.
The rise of Hallowe'en in England has certainly been phenomenal. When I was a child in the 1970's, it was a barely noticeable blip before the big excitement of Guy Fawke's Night. I remember once making a desultory attempt at apple-bobbing before concluding that it was a pointless exercise. I first encountered "trick or treating" in M for Mischief, a disappointing American children's novel that I purchased from the Scholastic Book Club at school. The cultural reference was as lost on me as the title's allusion to Hitchcock.

Although the Americanised version of Hallowe'en originally crossed the Atlantic via horror movies such as John Carpenter's eponymous 1978 slasher, its popularity has been promoted by capitalism's need to sell sugary sweets by the bucketload and to fill Chinese container ships with an endless supply of plastic novelties bound for Britain's pound shops. Many families now decorate their houses with artificial spiders' webs and other spooky paraphenalia, and TV soap operas run extended Hallowe'en specials. "Firework Night" now extends for a minimum of two weeks and the Gunpowder Plot has almost been forgotten about due to competition from vampires and zombies. (A strong exception to this is the town of Lewes in Sussex, where the sectarian tradition is maintained with a vengeance, as crosses symbolising Protestant martyrs are paraded though the streets before effigies of Pope Paul V are ceremoniously incinerated along with modern-day bogeymen such as Vladimir Putin and Alex Salmond.)

Martyrs remembered in Lewes

For myself, I am starting to find Hallowe'en quite irritating, although I am not afflicted by the Columbophobia that many of its critics appear to be stricken with. It's the commercialism that rankles, of course. Added to which, I find it rather odd that parents who spend their rest of the year telling their children not to speak to strangers spend the evening of October 31st encouraging them to knock on other people's doors to scrounge sweets and other goodies. As our friend the Pagan plod notes, Hallowe'en has become a night of fear for many elderly people, who resort to switching off the lights and pretending that no one is in. Similarly, the extended bombardment of fireworks is dreaded by pet-owners; it used to be a simple matter to keep the cat in on the night of November 5th.

Both Halloween and Samhain are modern festivals in their current form. Neo-paganism dates back to the 1950's and its imaginative reconstructions of ancient customs hardly count as traditional to a nominal member of the C of E such as myself - even if I did once dabble with a feminist Samhain ritual from The Spiral Dance in a Bournemouth bedsit many years ago (its creator Starhawk is one American importation that British Pagans do not seem to object to).

As for the demise of Guy Fawke's Night, perhaps it is just as well that ancient communalist grudges have been forgotten, and the Bin Laden of the 17th Century is now acquiring the status of an anti-capitalist icon. One recalls T.S. Eliot's horror of the event, which led to him writing The Hollow Men. The custom of "a penny for the old guy", in which children used to show off their straw-stuffed effigies in an attempt to raise money was a precursor to "trick or treating". (If the practice survives at all nowadays, it is carried out with minimal effort and involves sitting on the ground outside of a supermarket next to an old jumper filled with screwed-up newspaper.)

The root of the matter is that, in a society wholly devoted to neoliberalism, the dominant culture gives its adherents little to celebrate beyond the acquisition of physical objects and narcissistic ego gratification. Still it is important to remember that there is a wider world out there, and what Pagans call "the wheel of the year" is turning. Hallowe'en takes place at an evocative point in the natural cycle and its mystery can still be sensed. Rather than rampaging around city streets with pissed-up sexy witches and tomato ketchup-splattered serial killers, it might be more satisfying to go for a long walk in the country and then settle down in front of the fire with Ray Bradbury's classic Hallowe'en fantasy Something Wicked This Way Comes. 

(The photographs in this post were taken by the ever-delightful Eleanor Sopwith, the missing link between Ansel Adams and Morticia Addams.)

1 comment:

Carter Kaplan said...

Excellent suggestion (Bradbury).

My sense at the time (what, only two weeks ago?) was that the current spiritual situation (driven by geopolitical strife, the internet, the uncertain future) has amplified the more sinister elements and themes of what is otherwise an innocuous holiday for children both young and old. That is, the past 364 days of the year have provided enough "trick or treat", and this time around Halloween is rather too much of the same thing...