Upon this night, as Robert Burns put it, “when fairies light On Cassilis Downans dance”, I often find myself thinking back to the Hallowe’ens of my childhood — back before the time we adopted the imported American tradition of trick or treat — and marvel at the simplicity of it, the sense of dark promise, the sheer delight in allowing my imagination to do its worst… and enjoy it!
They were invariably uneventful evenings, at least by today’s standards. Some I spent indoors with my parents — the weather (like this evening, incidentally) was not always conducive to knocking on neighbourhood doors — others I might spend doing the rounds with my friends in my electric wheelchair, chanting “The sky is blue / the grass is green / have you got a penny for Hallowe’en?” but all had a quality about them that I still recall today, over 30 years later.
There was a very real atmosphere. A magical expectation not unlike Christmas and in some ways, I might say, better than Christmas. I always liked the darker, mystical, spookier side of life as a kid. Ghosts, vampires, werewolves — they all fascinated me. I could no doubt analyse this until the cows came home (could it, perhaps, have been my early proximity to death as a concept and reality that prompted me to contemplate these rule-breaking spooks?), but that isn’t really what this piece is about.
Those times lacked sophistication. We were kids with carved turnips (a pumpkin? Who the hell needs pumpkins?), the wind constantly blowing out the candles inside them, as we pointed at shadows and whispered, determined to scare each other — not really caring in the least if we made any money from our doorknocking efforts. One of us may have had a shop-bought mask, but that was as far as we went in the name of “costume”. The familiar angles of the world around us fell away from true, and in those vague imaginings that become so solid for children we lost ourselves in the uncomplicated world of death, life and everything in between.
Briefly, we invented a world in which we could be the ever vigilant heroes. A stake, a cross — the supernatural tools of childhood that many of us would eventually leave behind — these were our imagined talismans against the unseen enemy we, however scary it might be, nevertheless loved.
To return home alive (which would always be the case — since, I learned much later, our parents followed at a discreet distance) was to beat the odds, was to be the hero.
Was to cheat death.
Times of laughter, times of delighted fear. There were not, on the whole, the expensive Hallowe’en parties we see today — but we survived, and I still remember those times, friends and places.
And the memories are strong enough to bring back at least some of that childhood excitement.