Why the new American Halloween doesn’t hold a jack-o’-lantern to the old Welsh way
Here in South Carolina where I now live, we are on the threshold of another Halloween night. Thank goodness it’s finally come, so I won’t have to see all the gauche yard decorations for another year. Blessed be!
What used to be a fun, low-key evening of innocent dress up, pumpkin carving and apple bobbing, has turned into a commercial feeding frenzy. While we parade around in silly costumes, and our kids grab fistfuls of candy from strangers, the fat cats are counting their takings and purring all the way to the bank. Cha-ching!
Most people have no idea what we’re really celebrating. Is it the Celtic pagan festival of Samhain? The night when the souls of the dead can mingle with the living?
Hell no. It’s the second highest-grossing commercial holiday (after Christmas) that’s what it is. And it’s supposed to be fun, so get thee to a Walmart or Target, and spend, spend, spend!
Halloween decorations have been on sale for over a month, and now they jostle for attention as sparkly white Christmas items appear on shelves, innocent, holy, virginal, alongside the tacky orange and black décor – the plastic skulls, styrofoam headstones, and cackling witches.
From tiny bat window decals, to inflatable outdoor monstrosities, you can find it all right here in Babylon. Inflatable pumpkins the size of a Mini Cooper? Check. Spiders the size of a kitchen table? You got it. 5ft glow in the dark standing witches and battery-operated screeching skulls that will give your toddlers nightmares for months? Yep, step right up.
Some yard displays are so elaborate and realistic you could dump a murdered body on the front lawn, cover it in fake cobwebs, and nobody would notice during the whole month of October. Some kid dressed in a cop costume might arrest the homeowner though after he’s got his bucket load of M&M’s…
And as a parent, you inevitably get caught up in all this craziness. It’s not that I don’t like Halloween – not at all – it’s fun for what it is. What I despise is the commercialization of yet another ancient celebration that would actually be more fun with far less hype and materialism. One can’t help notice it’s a bit of a money-spinner, especially since brand new costumes cost around $20 – $30 and those enormous yard decorations can set you back anywhere from $100 to $200 apiece.
Not to mention how much people spend on candy. So, yeah, somebody’s raking in a good harvest. Maybe they are celebrating Samhain after all.
My memories of Halloween (Nos Calan Gaeaf) in Wales are cherished but rather sparse as I look back. It wasn’t such a big, celebrated occasion like it is today, and was overshadowed by Guy Fawkes Night. To Remember, Remember, the 5th of November, meant you could build a huge bonfire, have a barbecue, burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes, and set off fireworks. It was a huge community event. No contest really.
In our little village in the Welsh mountains, we roamed around as witches and ghosts and very little else. No Disney characters, vampires or zombies in sight. They were mostly homespun costumes made up of bits and pieces, probably carnival leftovers, or an old sheet off the bed with two holes cut for eyes, and a witches’ outfit made out of a trash bag. Nobody went out and bought things and people’s homes were not decorated.
One Halloween our little group crept along in the pitch-black darkness of the country night, on the one-lane road, flanked by the tall stone walls of the eerie castle grounds, which didn’t need decorating. It was the real thing. And yes, sometimes we climbed the walls and went in there, just for kicks. There was a stone tower hidden in the dense woods within the grounds, and an animal skull displayed in one of its windows…who needs made in China garbage, right? Just spend Halloween in rural Wales.
I also remember bobbing for apples in school, hearing songs about witches and making crafts.
We didn’t have pumpkins to carve – we made a little lantern out of a rutabaga, rwdan in Welsh. You’d find a nice big one, slice a piece off the top (which would be the lid,) hollow out a center, carve out eyes and a mouth, then stick a candle in there, pop the lid back on, punch holes for string on each side, and carry it around all night. I still fondly recall the smell of burning rwdan!
Trick or treating didn’t catch on in our village until we were much older, and as young teenagers I remember we dressed in costumes a few times and went knocking on doors asking for treats. We were given money not candy. Far more practical.
One year, we joined forces with a group of kids in a neighboring village. There must have been a crowd of about 30 of us little devils gathered together for a night of pure mischief. We’d play pranks on the poor villagers, my personal favorite being knock doors (ring and run in America). Kids stuffed all kinds of objects (nothing too nasty or dangerous) through letterboxes and we ran around like a rabble of rapscallions, having the time of our lives.
We’d play pranks on people, and there was no choice in the matter. Treats were not an option. You were getting punked. End of.
It does take a village – and people were extremely tolerant of our wild child escapades. Nowadays there would probably be lawsuits. But back then our parents trusted us. We organized it all ourselves, no PTA planning involved and no helicopter moms. We were allowed to play in Pleasure Island for one night, minus the set backs of growing donkey ears and tails, and being sold into slavery. Instead we’d end up safely at home in our beds, and sleep like innocent babes.
A group of older boys liked to steal gates every year on Halloween night and I have no idea where this tradition originated. I’m pretty sure one of the big gates at the entrance to our smallholding disappeared one year, and was discovered the next day tossed in our fields. It was just one of those things.
But our focus was also on Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Night a few days later on November 5th. We’d make an effigy of the Guy, stick it in an old pram, and push it around the village shouting, ‘penny for the Guy.’ Then we’d build a bonfire and stick the Guy on top to be ceremoniously burned. Back then I didn’t quite see the horrific significance.
So this year, on Halloween night, we’ll once more traipse through suburbia, knocking on rows of houses that all look the same, kids safely chaperoned, decked in costumes ranging from superheroes to princesses, gathering mass-produced candy, in made in China plastic pumpkins.
Our 6-year old daughter, dressed up as a dinosaur or maybe even Elsa from Frozen, will love it of course, the excitement of being out at night with her little friends, delightfully scared by the elaborate decorations at some homes, and the piece de resistance – free candy! All in a perfectly nice and safe environment.
Yet I’ll fondly recall those carefree, unhampered nights of pure mischief, with no parents in sight. And all it cost was the price of a common root vegetable and a candle.
I hate to say those were the days…
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My American memories of Halloween, it seems so focused on sugar and advertising that I prefer the Welsh variety.
Ellylltan = Jackolantern
What is the difference between am ellylltan and this jac lantar?
Diolch ymlaen llaw
I thought it was the height of sophistication to be presented with a bowl of ‘witches fingers’ at a friends halloween party (frankfurters chopped in tomatoes). Oh for the homemade fun. Ducking and bobbing and the smell of toasting swede!
Gallwch ddod i gyfarfod â Jac y Lantarn a rhagor o gymeriadau Calan Gaeaf Cymreig yn sioe theatr ‘Dygwyl y Meirw’ – ar daith yn Ne Cymru tan ddechre Tachwedd ??? Os ydy Calan Gaeaf Brexitaidd yn codi ofn arnoch, neu’ch bod yn diflasu gweld diwedd mis Hydref yn troi’n esgus gan siopau i werthu sgrwnsh pwmpenaidd plastig i chi – peidiwch â phoeni! Mae taith Dygwyl y Meirw yn parhau www hwww! Sioe i blant a’u teuluoedd, straeon Calan Gaeaf Cymreig gyda phypedau, triciau hud, pypedau cysgodion a lot o hwyl! Dewch i gyfarfod â Jac y Lantarn, y… Read more »
hen jac lantar haha ych a fi
Ironically Halloween is a celtic tradition …. no other.
Many Welsh customs were killed off by the industrial revolution as people channeled to the cities and forgot the customs of the rural areas, this was also accelerated by an increasingly english-centric Britain and then further killed off by the rise of American english culture. We should thank America for keeping the Memory alive I suppose !
Love this article! Having grown up in US our Halloween back in the 60′ and 70’s was a lot more like the Nos Callan Gaeaf described above!