On the night of the thinnest divide between this life and the afterlife, when apparitions and spirits freely slink, skulk, stalk and sneak about, bring out the costumes to scare off the demons and carve your pumpkins and light them with candles and make your taffy apple treats.
Two thousand or more years ago, the Celts (in today’s UK, Ireland and northern France) had an end-of-the-year bash that marked the conclusion of their summer. By the time October came to a close, they reaped their harvests and celebrated Samhain and settled down to face the cold and the dark winter months.
November 1st was the transition point, their New Year. On October 31st, the night when the ghosts of the dead returned to earth to stir up trouble and make mischief, Samhain was celebrated with sacred bonfires; crops and animals were sacrificed to appease gods and goddesses and costumes (made largely of animal heads and pelts) were donned to scare malevolent spirits. The Druids, or Celtic priests, looked into the future and told fortunes. And when it was all over, they re-lit their fires from the sacred bonfires and hunkered down for winter.
Around A.D 43, the Romans came along and conquered the Celts and over the next four hundred years, wrapped up all the festivals – the Celtic Samhain, the Roman Feralia and the day that Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees was honored – into a jumbo revelry of thanksgiving, devotions, soothsaying and sacrifice.
Pope Boniface IV in the seventh century (or Pope Gregory III in the eighth century – depending on the source of reference) declared November 1st All Saints Day, to honor the saints and martyrs. November 2nd became All Soul’s Day, a day of remembrance and prayer for the souls awaiting their release from Purgatory. These two ‘days of obligation’, bearing the Church’s imprimatur, replaced the pagan Celtic festival of the dead. The three festivals – the Eve of All Saints (31st October), All Saints (1st November) and All Souls (2nd November) – came to be known as Hallowmas, celebrated like Samhain with big bonfires and parades and the dressing up in costumes – saints, angels and devils of yore, probably taking to the streets in celebratory processions.
Today we have Halloween or Hallowe’en (nationality, race, creed, religion no bar) with secular festivities and observances celebrated in many parts of the world, and in sunny Singapore, the ghouls and ghosts arrive on doorsteps disguised as innocent little children with lisps and costumes, carrying buckets for candy.
And like the spirits of centuries ago, they threaten maleficence and dire happenings if they are not appeased with candies and sweets, a practice now called trick-or-treating, which can be traced back (in essence, if not in spirit) to the days of ‘going a-souling’ when poor people – or soulers – begged door to door, offering to say a prayer for the dead in exchange for pastries called soul cakes. Trick-or-treating – as we know it – is probably a twentieth century development, probably an American export, and probably gained momentum when manufacturers of sweets and candies realized they were onto a good thing … a very sweet thing.
Rumblings and grumblings in the air, lowering clouds heavy with the threat of rain.
Some streets of the Woodlands homes were transformed into a nether world with glow-in-the-dark skeletons and dangling skulls, bats and spiders and fluttering cobwebs, dimmed home lights, candles and jack-o-lanterns (hollowed pumpkins, carved faces, candles inside – a nod to Jack O’Lantern of British folk tales, shut out from heaven and hell, doomed to roam the earth for eternity with his lantern). Electronic signboards on the freeway warned of a gridlock at the Woodlands exit, some streets were closed to vehicular traffic; and wardens waving neon sticks regulated crowds.
They came, the crowds, from everywhere, strange denizens in the strangest of configurations, good and bad hand in hand; the fiend and the faerie, the beauty and the beast, the innocent and the unscrupulous, the hoary and the grizzled shepherding the munchkin and the rug rat, all come together on a thundery summer evening for a few hours of masquerade and fantasy. Mystery, enchantment and superstition afloat, treats aplenty, but not a trick for love or money – or candy!
Carnival time, this – for a few hours – in a small part of Singapore; a happy co-mingling of citizens and residents with complete disregard for economic, geographic, religious, ethnic (or any other) distinctions … babies in strollers and grandmothers in wheelchairs, supermen and flower girls, brides and brutes, Santas and Santarinas, pooches in gauze and net … even a Mikado. Enterprising helpers sold food and wine, umbrellas emblazoned with a particular company’s logo were distributed freely and a (male) teenager confided that the candy – the eye candy – was especially good this year.
Above the music and thunder and chatter and conversation echoed faint chuckles of Singapore’s dentists, laughing all the way to the bank.
When the three-year-old angel with her wings and tinsel and glitter, or the two-year-old Superman with his cape and flying skills knock at the door, hands and buckets thrust out in expectation, it is hard to remember how it all once began … the Celt in his animal mask, trying to pass off as a spirit amongst the real ones, to avoid being recognized and done harm to, probably warming his hands at a sacred bonfire.
For all things Hallowe’en, click here.
For those disenchanted with Hallowe’en, this one is for you.
Photographs by Anita Thomas.