Halloween has changed. There’s no denying it. In 1980s Ireland, it was a simple affair. On October 31st you played a few festive games in your kitchen, you dressed up in something; anything really – I have a vague memory of my friend being dressed up in a two-piece suit, a bad wig and a sticker that said ‘Mary Robinson’ – and off you went house-to-house with a plastic bag.
When you came home, you watched a daring neighbour set off illegal fireworks that someone’s older brother had bought across the border (we lived very near South Armagh) and you ate everything you got in one go, making sure to discard monkey nuts and mandarin oranges. The following day you went to mass to pray for saints or souls – I can’t remember which – and that was it. Halloween was over for another year.
My, oh my, has it changed.
If you were between the ages of 4 and 12 you dressed up on one night of the year. There was no such thing as a store-bought costume. There was also minimal crafting. Parents were too preoccupied with the Anglo-Irish agreement and that episode of the Late Late Show to be pushing nails through a swimming cap for a Pinhead costume. You wore your mother’s faux fur coat with a plastic cat mask, an old white sheet with holes cut for eyes or you cut zig-zags into worn pants, rubbed ashes on your face and presented as a zombie. Further south, a pair of your mother’s tights worn over your face was acceptable but it cut a bit too close to the bone in border counties. These were your only options unless you had loads of money or relations who posted you something from America.
Every supermarket sells elaborate costumes. Every character imaginable is available. Entire online shops are dedicated to Halloween apparel. Even petrol stations and hardware stores sell Halloween accoutrements. Commercially, the ‘season’ begins at the end of September. Creative parents may spend the month of October planning and stitching and gluing so as they can out-craft their competition. Teenagers will transform into horror movie characters and sexy bunny rabbits. It’s also now commonplace for adults to dress-up. Shop assistants will dress up. Teachers will dress up. Even babies will dress up. For an entire weekend.
We didn’t decorate our homes. The local pub may have lit some tealights and put fake cobwebs around the fireplace but other than that, Halloween decorations didn’t really exist. Unless Mary Fitzgerald showed you how to fashion some class of spider out of a toilet roll insert, felt and pipe-cleaners, your house would remain decoration-free until the second week of December when homes all over the country were adorned with cheap trees and expanding, accordion-style tinsel that stretched diagonally across the ceiling.
There is increasing pressure to bedeck your home, inside and out. We are working much harder to spook little trick-or-treaters.
I have a some Halloween bunting, a wreath, a sign for the front door, a set of ghost lights, two sets of pumpkin lights, a giant skeleton, a paper pumpkin that lights up, some jelly decorations for the windows and a large spider. I consider myself not that into Halloween. Some die-hards will use atmospheric lighting, sound-effects and dry-ice machines to create scenes that would rival an episode of The Walking Dead.
Did you spend an entire evening carving an instagrammable pumpkin? I rest my case.
Bobbing for apples was (and still is) the ultimate Halloween family game. A bucket from the garage that was ordinarily used for turf would be upturned, rinsed out and filled with water and a handful of Granny Smiths. Children took turns dunking their own and one another’s heads into the bucket to try and snag an bite of an apple with their teeth.
In a similar game, another apple (the pumpkin of the 80s in Ireland) was hung from the doorknob of a kitchen cabinet. As it swung, we lined up with our hands tied behind our backs and proceeded to behave like demented turkeys with necks outstretched in an attempt to catch the apple between our teeth. Whoever got the biggest bite got to keep the apple. That’s right, the prize was a half-eaten apple. There was no other incentive to take part.
The largest plate in the house was filled with flour and a 10p coin was buried below the surface. Participants willingly face-planted into the flour for the shiny reward.
While the games are still played in a lot of homes, ticket-only Halloween events, festivals and activities are omnipresent and they are to Halloween what the annual visit to Santa is to Christmas. Pumpkin farmers open their gates so little ones can enjoy running through vast fields of the bulbous orange vegetables. Hotels and restaurants hold themed events making unwitting employees dress up as mummies, fairies and Morticia Addams. Pumpkin carving has become a national pastime.
TRICK OR TREATING
Kids coughed and spluttered around smoggy estates (no smokeless fuel in the 80s) and along badly lit streets, dodging eggs being thrown by teenagers. As long as you were over 5, you were unaccompanied.
You had to perform. You either rattled off a song about putting ‘some money in the old man’s hat’ or you brought your tin whistle and played a bar of The Boys of Bluehill. No performance meant no sugary payout.
There was no limit on the amount of crap you consumed on Halloween night.
Areas and occupants are pre-vetted by costumed parents who accompany trick-or-treaters at all times.
With increasing emphasis on healthy eating, trick-or-treaters are as likely to get a protein ball as as they are to get a packet of Wheelies. The ‘good’ houses that still give out Refresher bars and sherbet are noted and this information passes down in hushed tones from the older kids to the young some time in early October. Party pieces are reserved for such homes.
Loot is carefully inspected by parents and rationed. Parents will agonise for weeks over the damage done to teeth by over-consumption of Chuppa Chups and Skittles.
Halloween has most certainly evolved into a monstrous commercial business. It is now the third biggest retail event after Christmas and Easter. But is that so bad? Personally, I love the turn Halloween has taken. I’m no crafter and I will always be the mum who buys the costume but I am absolutely willing to get into the spirit of it all. Heck, I’ll even dress up! I think ours would be classifed as a ‘good’ house – you might not get a Refresher bar but you can be guaranteed a packet of Haribo and a Milky Way. It’s only once a year after all.
I’d love to hear about your Halloween memories. Are you keeping the traditions alive with your own kids? Do you think Halloween has become an exercise in commercial trickery or is it simply an opportunity to treat your family and have some harmless fun? Do share! And have a super spooky Halloween!
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