Friday 30 October 2009

Halloween - lost under a mountain of plastic tat?

I don't think Halloween has ever been quite so commercial in England as it is this year.

When I was young, Guy Fawkes Night - or Bonfire Night - was the big autumn event. Shops were full of fireworks and plastic masks of a bearded bloke to put on the Guy - a life-size manikin made of old clothes stuffed with newspapers or straw and destined to be burned on the bonfire.

Rather than going Trick or Treating, kids would cart their creation around in an old pram, asking "Penny for the Guy".

Bonfire Night celebrates the foiling of a terrorist attack, known as The Gunpowder Plot, to blow up the Houses of Parliament on November 5, 1605. Guy Fawkes, a mercenary hired by Catholic conspirators to handle the explosives, was discovered and executed along with his fellow plotters.

In some parts of England, in particular Lewes in Sussex, Guy Fawkes Night is still a big event, but in most places Halloween has taken over. And even in Lewes, this year's Lewes Bonfire Council is urging non-residents to stay away.

Fireworks can still be bought, but from far fewer outlets, yet every shop is full of Halloween fancy dress costumes, spooky partyware, ghoulish sweets and plastic buckets in the shape of pumpkin lanterns. For adults, every pub is advertising a Halloween theme night and every big building with any kind of history seems to be running a ghost tour.

I have never seen quite so many Halloween events advertised before. I suppose the reason could be that this year Halloween falls on a Saturday, when most people want to do something fun anyway. It could be that shops, pubs and tourist attractions have been so badly affected by the recession that they are making the most of anything that will draw in custom.

Or maybe we have all had such a year of real fear through job uncertainties and financial worries that make-believe fear of ghosts is a safe outlet for our emotions. Yes, it is OK to be scared - and it can even be fun sometimes.

My feelings about the commercialisation of Halloween are mixed. I do love an excuse for a fancy dress party and I enjoy hearing ghost stories. I don't even blame shops for selling stuff there is obviously a demand for - although I would like to see less on the shelves that is hard to recycle.

However, I do feel a slight sadness that some of the deeper meanings of this festival are being lost under a mountain of plastic tat.

Most Wiccans and many modern pagans celebrate Samhain, rather than Halloween. They see it as a time to honour our ancestors and to remember loved ones who have passed away. It is a time of reflection and introspection rather than frivolity and fun. It is said that the veil between this world and the next is thin, and sometimes spirits can communicate across the divide.

Christians honour the dead at this time of year too - with All Saints Day on November 1 and All Souls Day on November 2. Many of them get quite upset at Halloween parties that seem to revel in things un-Christian, such as witches, vampires, ghosts, zombies and devils.

But I wouldn't want to be too much of a party-pooper. I think there can be a place for all kinds of celebration at this time of year, when the days are getting colder and the nights are drawing in. According to some accounts the Irish in historic times held Samhain, the start of winter, as a time of feasting and fun, so why shouldn't we?

Personally, I intend to both honour my ancestors and celebrate with my friends. I shall spend some time remembering my father, who died almost exactly three years ago. I shall light a single candle for him and sit quietly to see if I feel his presence. Then, later, when the candle has burnt down, I shall leave gloomy thoughts behind me, put on my red shoes and go out and party.

Do you think Halloween is too commercial these day? I have put a poll at the bottom of the page of A Bad Witch's Blog so you can vote.

Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain
Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween
Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night
Halloween: Customs, Recipes and Spells

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