Tuesday, 2 November 2010

The Halloween Tree

By Halloween --- “sicht a night” as Robbie Burns called it in his poem, “Halloween”, the Rowan tree’s leaves are changing. The red berries that hung in large clusters have morphed into withered, white berries. The morning sun rising at a low angle lights up the tree with so many colours that you stand in awe. Most Scottish homes have one or two Rowan trees --- what in America is known as the Mountain Ash, planted not far from the main doorway. It’s there to protect the home and the inhabitants from ghoulies and bogies. And Scotland has plenty of those. Perhaps it’s the damp Scottish climate that produces ghosts, so legendary throughout the world. I’m sure it isn’t only the Scottish imagination; wild though it may be. People I meet in the pub are quite happy to talk about football, the economy,girls, getting drunk or the like. Not about ghosts. Certainly not about fairies --- unless these are fairies in the American sense of the word. But if you find yourself alone in the hills on a desolate spot, you may feel that the land is alive. That you're not necessarily alone. Even those who aren't imaginative will experience it.

In Aberdeenshire Halloween is usually celebrated with a bonfire. Some people wait until November 5, what the English call "Guy Fawkes Night." It’s an opportunity for farmers to burn scraps of wood that have accumulated over the year; often to get together with friends for a dance or a drink while watching the flames soar into the sky. It’s a very ancient festival --- the Celtic Samhain, which predates Christianity and even resisted all attempts to Christianize it. Halloween --- the eve of All Saints Day? I don’t think anyone thinks of it in those terms. Long ago the bonfire had less to do with burning scrap wood. It was more about the welcoming of the dark cycle of the year, when “nights are lang and mirk.” The fire is lit in defiance of the night, a defense against the dark and what it represents. Death.

It was also a celebration of night, of the shadow --- all those forbidden impulses, the things we’d secretly like to do but for social reasons we don’t dare. Long ago the kids took over that part with their Halloween “tricks.” They used to stuff a neighbour’s chimney with peat, or tie a string to a row of turnips and pull on the string, so that the farmer sees his turnips marching across the field. Another favorite was to knock loudly on a neighbour’s window, at the same time smash a bottle against the wall. That gives the old geezer a start! Dressing up as ghouls was also part of the fun --- guising as it’s known here. That’s the past. Today in our present age of commerce, some chocolate manufacturer invented “trick or treat.’So out comes the big bag that must be filled with sweets. You see it in the cities here, but certainly not on the scale that it exists in the US.

The game of “dooking for apples” that children know worldwide as a Halloween game, may have its origin in a forgotten ritual of a trial by water, where the Celtic initiate had to go through water to reach the apples of immortality. A lesser known game, one I used to play with the kids when they were young, is the trial by fire. You attach a candle to a small board, balance it with an apple on the opposite end, and hang it six feet above your kitchen floor. With the candle lit, and the apple dangling on the other end, you spin the board. Jumping up you try to take a bite of the apple and avoid singing your hair. Again, there's the message that the gift of immortality is not cheap. You have to go through fire and water to attain it.

Halloween is a night for divination, so get out your Tarot cards, Horoscope, I Ching or whatever you use to take a peek at the future. Find out what fortune may come your way. Traditionally you'd make mashed potatoes with turnips and bury a ring, penny, a silver coin, a button. Depending on what lands in your mouth, you’ll either find marriage, poverty, riches or remain single. Or, you may also lose a tooth that year.

As for ghosts? I’ve never seen any but I know some who have. Later I’ll post a few stories that demonstrate that in Scotland the barrier between our world and the other is very thin.

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