Lift your spirits by digging up traditions
Mix a little imagination with a sprinkle of childhood memories and a dash of enthusiasm for a spooky Halloween for all the family, writes SHEILA WAYMAN
A BLOODIED, severed leg dangles from one window of the neighbour’s house, an arm from another; artistic cobwebs drape the front garden, where a rat freezes beside a tombstone. These neighbours are new to the road and are certainly upping the ante for the rest of us.
Halloween used to be one night, now it’s a season. We may not have money to burn in fireworks during the build-up any more but it’s still a great excuse for a party. It is, after all, a tradition we can rightfully claim as our own.
Halloween, the night before All Hallows’ Day, has its roots in the pagan Celtic festival of Samhain, marking the start of winter. It was brought to the US by Irish and Scottish emigrants, where it grew into the more commercial, inflated version that we embrace today.
Who would want to carve miserable turnips now that we’ve got plump pumpkins? And witches and ghosts look positively quaint nowadays beside the zombies and axe murderers. (I draw the line at any child of mine going around with a “dagger” embedded in his skull – “you’re no fun, Mum”).
But has the focus on that bewitching combination of commercial horror and candy gone too far? Is there still a place for rummaging through the dress-up box at home rather than selecting a costume off the shop rail? For eating barm brack and colcannon and playing games such as apple-bobbing and apple snap?
Earlier this month, Early Childhood Ireland encouraged parents to resurrect the traditional family games and rituals, which require time rather than money.
Its chief executive officer, Irene Gunning, thinks a lot of families broke from the old rituals as commercialisation took over.
“Commercial aspects have gone to ridiculous extremes with all the special sweets in the shops since September.” She likes the idea of “junk couture” – creating costumes with whatever is at hand, but acknowledges that it is hard to compete with the lure of ready-made costumes.
Halloween is an ancient festival rooted in our mono-culture, she points out, and some people now think it’s distasteful and ghoulish to have children revelling in the night of the dead.
But Gunning is no killjoy and sees most of it as harmless fun. “I don’t believe in frightening small children but children like to be in that state of anticipation of being frightened” – they know they will be all right in the end.
“It is only when we are little that we split off the good from the bad – that is how, when we are small, that we relate to the world, that bad and good don’t exist together,” she says.
“The trouble for many people around Halloween is that we know that they exist together. It is not ‘out there’, it is ‘within’.”
That, she adds, is the real sinister side but it’s a very adult concept.
The manager of the Beaumont Community Pre-school in north Dublin, Bernie Sheridan, has been celebrating Halloween with her small charges for 20 years and has seen it become much more commercial during that time.
She would like to see it pared back, leaving children to use their imagination more than anything else.
Talking ahead of the pre-school’s Halloween party last week, she said: “Most of the outfits will be bought which is a shame.
“You will get one or two parents who will make up ones but the majority will be bought.”
Sheridan believes as long as people keep the celebrations age-appropriate, small children love Halloween. But she warns about masks, which the 80 children at the pre-school, ranging in age from two years and nine months to five years, are not allowed to wear at the party.
“In general young children just find masks hard to handle – either the claustrophobic thing on their face, or scary.” The staff dress up too for the party but don’t overdo it.
“Sometimes we find the children don’t like us dressing up, it can kind of upset them.
“We are their security coming in and you can’t change it too much – we just put on funny ear-rings or a hairband with bobbins.
“You can’t go too far because you might frighten them – they are very young and very vulnerable.”
I have to confess I have little affection for Halloween. Although, as a child I loved ghost stories and have happy memories of ferociously competitive apple bobbing – to the point of inhaling water – and eating our way through bowls of mixed nuts, until only the nutcracker-defying almonds remained.
But as a young adult the anxiety about navigating my way home around the outskirts of Finglas, where fireworks and bonfires spilled onto the roads, put me off the noisy night of celebration.
I was never one for fancy dress either, once adult self-consciousness set in.
When I was a home-owner but not yet a mother, I never remembered to get a supply of treats in, so would end up sitting in the dark, pretending there was no one at home.
My children look enviously at other people’s homes transformed into houses of horror and ask plaintively why can’t ours be like that?
Our year-round, home-grown cobwebs and spiders just don’t cut it.
I have to admire the energy of one mother who buys pumpkins weeks in advance, carves them and then puts them in the freezer so they will still be looking their best lining the driveway to the house on the big night.
She asks for her name not to be used: “People will think I’m nuts!”
My seasonally transplanted, Scrooge-like tendencies certainly seem to be in the minority, if the enthusiasm of parents interviewed for this article (see sidebar) about how they and their children will celebrate tomorrow night is anything to go by.
“You seem to be in a bit more of a Halloween mood now,” remarked my 11-year-old son the other day. Halloween cheer – or should that be fear – must be catching.
Perhaps this is the year I will discover my inner witch.
TRICK OR TREAT ETIQUETTE
It’s really not either/or – it’s all about the treats.
Keep younger children under adult supervision at all times.
Consider using face paint rather than masks that restrict vision and can terrify small children.
High-viz vests would ruin the look, so give children torches.
Remind your children to be grateful for any hand-out – no “Oliver” impressions allowed.
Keep your children away from all amateurs playing with fireworks – they’re illegal and dangerous.
Stock up with mini-bars and sweets at home for callers.
Bear in mind that many parents will bin anything that is not wrapped.
Handing out nuts to other people’s children is a no-no.
Forget your healthy eating principles for one night and hold the fruit – most of it will go to waste.
If you don’t want children calling, switch off all lights at the front of the house.
‘ALL IN THE WORST POSSIBLE TASTE – THE SCARIER THE BETTER’
Ciara Putt loves to “go overboard” at Halloween. Her mother was “brilliant” at celebrating it and she wants to do the same with her three children, Oisín (10), Rory (7) and Fionn (5).
“We are talking about tombstones in the garden and grave crawlers. There are cobwebs and giant spiders.” Last year she put a strobe light in the car outside her home in Ballycullen, Dublin, illuminating two monsters sitting in it.
“All in the worst possible taste – the scarier the better but it’s all good fun.” Even before she had children, she would always decorate the house and host a fancy-dress party.
She adds to her collection every year but this time, when her “long-suffering” husband, David, took down six black bags of Halloween stuff from the attic, she promised not to buy any more.
The boys revel in the blood and guts of it all. Rory has chosen “an absolutely horrific” zombie costume, which she had intended to tone down a bit but he won’t let her.
“I don’t know where they get it from,” she says. Does she worry about them indulging too much in the gory side? “No, not at all – I probably should a bit.”
Either she or David will go around trick-or-treating with the children, while the other holds the fort at home.
“I buy and make costumes,” explains Ciara. “Oisín has spina bifida and he uses a wheelchair so we have to improvise.”
Even the family dog, Seamus, used to dress up but he’s a bit too old for that now and will be on sedatives tomorrow night.
Meanwhile, in the Palmer household in Rush, Co Dublin, skeleton Billy Bones, who predates all four children, takes pride of place among their Halloween decorations.
Their house is decorated for at least two weeks beforehand “to get the most out of it”, says Cathriona Coade-
Palmer, mother of Ciarán (12), Dillon (10), Cathal (seven today) and Devin (three).
Her husband, Garry Palmer, a designer for a printing company, helps to decorate the house and, as we talk, he is making replacement spiders for the hall decorations that have been ripped by the children.
Last week they started to make a Halloween piñata out of papier maché, which is covered with crepe, painted and filled with sweets.
“We make that ourselves because it is part of the build-up and the kids get excited about it,” says Cathriona.
Tomorrow night she and Garry will both go trick-or-treating with the children in their Tayleurs Point neighbourhood, while her sister will be up from Waterford to dole out sweets to callers at their front door.
So many costumes have been bought over the year, the children are tied to getting something out of their big dress-up box this year.
The eldest wants to dress up as a woman for the first time; the youngest has his eye on a Tweety Pie costume, while the other two will be a skeleton and a zombie.
“We paint up their faces and have fake blood but we don’t go overboard on anything too graphic,” says Cathriona.
There was nothing fake about the blood she was hooked up to on Halloween night seven years ago, after the arrival of Cathal. But she reassured her older two when they came to visit that it was part of her Halloween gear.
Cathriona always remembers how the newborns wailed in the maternity hospital that night as all the fireworks exploded outside. “I’ve been in Holles Street four times and I never heard anything like it!”
Halloween has nudged out Easter in popularity among Elaine Smith’s four children, ranging in age from 11 to seven.
“The scarier the better,” she says. “Lots of blood and gore. It’s harmless fun.”
Some of the decorations at their home, which they have accumulated over the years, come with sound effects – push the bell on the door and a monster starts to scream.
It is the first year she is allowing them to go off with friends trick or treating around the local estates in Mornington, Co Meath unsupervised. But they are only allowed to go to houses of families they know with children of the same age, or pensioners who have invited them to call.
“There are so many children about, unless you have children of your own age you are not going to have sweets in for them. Some children just go around with great big plastic bags and knock on every door – mine are not allowed to do that.”
And “tricks” in the absence of “treats” are definitely forbidden – “if I heard that there would be trouble”.
Rose Butler of Tulla in Co Clare is “huge” into Halloween and loves the Americanisation of the festivities. There was none of that when she was growing up.
“I don’t think it’s over gory, it’s just fun for the kids.” But she and her husband, Henry, try to keep up some of the traditional games for their three children, Lauren (seven), Lucie (four) and Isabelle (three) who are dressing up this year as a zombie, bunny and ballerina respectively.
As Henry has a “cool” zombie outfit from last year, he is the designated adult trick-or-treater, while Rose will do door duty at home. They will visit every house in the whole estate – “it’s the only time we get to see most of the neighbours”, she remarks.