Sunday, 26 October 2008

Tricks And Treats Of The Season.

This week temperatures, like the stock markets, fell sharply, autumn, the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, as the poet would have it, is well and truly upon us.

In compensation for the wet summer just gone and the bitter winter yet to come trees in suburban streets and public parks across the country have been aflame with shades and tones of burn orange that would not be out of place in a sunset painted by Turner.

Visiting Newcastle-under-Lyme, a market town near to where I live late last week the grinning pumpkins, cardboard skeletons and ghosts that owe more to Disney that any latter day apprehensions about the fate of the human soul on display in virtually every shop window reminded me that in a little less than a week it will be Halloween.

The annual festival of commercialised ghoulishness is, as Steve Roud’s The English Year reminds us a mostly modern creation, although it does occupy the eve of two festivals that were important to Medieval Christians, All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day, held, respectively, on the first and second days of November and may have links to older pagan celebrations.

Our interest in it as an opportunity for the young, and the young at heart, to dress up as spooks and sprites is of a rather less ancient vintage.

According to Roud it dates from the last three decades of the last century; that was certainly when the American practice of children going out ‘trick of treating’ on Halloween made is appearance in English life.

The premise is simple; youngsters in fancy dress go from house to house soliciting a treat in return for not playing a practical joke on the hapless householder. All good fun for the most part, although the tradition of children being taught only to call at those houses with their porch light lit as a signal the occupants are willing to play along that operates, so I’m told, in the US, has yet to make it to this side of the Atlantic.

As a result the editorial columns and letters pages of local papers across the country will be filled over the next week or so with angry commentary about the bad behaviour of a witless minority and its implications for the moral health of the nation.

Another concern has raised its head in relation to Halloween over recent years put forward by fundamentalist Christians that dressing up as a vampire and reading Harry Potter books is an accelerated entry scheme for eternal damnation.

Perhaps both parties need to calm down a little, the majority of kids out doing ‘trick or treat’ next Friday night will be well behaved, supervised and no trouble to anyone; let them have their fun.

It would be impossible to say something about an English Halloween without speculating as to just why so many adults want to get in on the fun, the pub a short walk away from my home is holding a Halloween Party complete with tarot readings and a witches brew bubbling in a pot by the bar and expects to do a roaring trade.

Perhaps there is a link between the rise in popularity of Halloween since the eighties and the decline over the same period of the economic and social certainties that were once a feature of everyday life.

If so then its popularity could rise to even greater heights, not least because the events of the past few weeks have taught us that life in the twenty first century is less secure than ever for all but the lucky few. Whatever tricks the local kids play on unsuspecting householders this coming Friday they are as nothing to those played on us all by the markets.