Hate it or love it, the scariest night of the year is upon us
Greedy children with hands outstretched with great expectations or children delighting in a night of magical transformation? How do you cope with Halloween?
Caoimhe O’Leary with her children, Adam (4) and Darren (18 months), at home in Tullow, Co Carlow. Photographs: Eric Luke
IF YOU don’t have children around, it is probably okay to admit you hate Halloween. For the rest of us, it seems churlish not to enter into the spirit of the night.
You may despise the tacky, over-priced decorations and costumes, resent the stream of trick or treaters to the door and fear the underlying air of menace in some urban areas, but still go along with it for the sake of the children. Nobody wants to rain on their parade (although there’s a good chance the Irish weather will do that anyway).
However, why does a one-night celebration have to have such a long build-up? In fact, by the time darkness falls on Thursday evening (October 31st), the majority of Halloween-themed festivals and events will be over, having cashed in on the bank holiday weekend.
“Halloween isn’t meant to be a ‘thing’, it’s just meant to be a day,” complains one mother of three in Dublin, who recalls how, when she was a child, you either put on a sheet to be a ghost for a couple of hours, or you borrowed your grandad’s cap and jacket to be an old man .
“None of this decorating your house weeks in advance. Hello? When did I fall asleep and wake up in mid-America?” she asks. “Ordering costumes online months in advance and practising elaborate make-up techniques via YouTube tutorials? Oh give me strength!”
The irony is that Halloween, or Samhain, is a Celtic festival that Irish and Scottish emigrants brought across the Atlantic, from where we have in turn imported a much bigger, brasher version. We’ve swapped turnip lanterns for easier-to-carve pumpkins, and traded apples and nuts for sickening quantities of “candy”.
Traditionally it’s a night, marking the start of winter, when the dividing layer between us and the “other world” becomes permeable. We light fires to ward off the evil spirits who come amongst us and wear masks so that they won’t recognise us and try to whisk us away to the other side.
But blame our US cousins for losing sight of pagan rituals and letting ghosts, witches and skeletons turn into zombies, axe murderers and short-skirted French maids.
There’s nothing half-hearted about Caoimhe O’Leary when it comes to celebrating this time of year. For her, it runs “pretty damn close” to the magic of Christmas.
“I really, really enjoy Halloween,” she says. “When I was growing up it was always about a big family get-together - partying with all my cousins and lots of other kids.”
She loved being able to dress up and, living then in rural Co Wicklow - “where no-one could hear you scream” - going out with torches and wondering if there were ghosts lurking in the pitch black.
“We always had a bonfire, nothing big but one you could toast marshmallows on, and fireworks” - her uncle had a licence and always put on a display for them.
Now she’s a mother herself, she still loves to dress up on Halloween night and do face painting for neighbours’ children in the small estate in Tullow, Co Carlow where she lives with her fiancé John Whelan, and their two children, Adam (four) and 18-month-old Darren.
“Seeing their little faces light up when they look in the mirror - ‘oh I look like a witch, I AM a witch…’ They go into this entire, magical world of their own where they believe, for this one night, they are this character they always wanted to be,” she enthuses.
Their house has been decorated since the first week of October and Adam went through countless costumes changes in his mind before settling on a skeleton for the big night, while his little brother has a pumpkin costume. And O’Leary will be a witch again because she’s still got the hat from last year.
Finances permitting, she likes to host a children’s party on the afternoon of the 31st and paint their faces in preparation for the trick or treating after dark. They know everybody in the estate so it is a safe, welcoming place for their children to be knocking on doors.
“Some children in the estate will go to other estates in the town and easily do 60 to 100 houses. I think that is a bit excessive; 20 houses is plenty for us.”
In the small Co Kerry town of Kenmare, a long-established Halloween night parade, followed by traditional games and the handing out of sweets to children, takes the place of door-to-door trick or treating. It rounds off what has evolved into a whole “Halloween Howl” festival and at least 1,500 children are expected to take part on Thursday night, according to Helen McDwyer of Kenmare Chamber of Commerce.