Blame it on the Celts. Halloween, I mean. Because that is where all this weirdness started. On second thought, maybe I should say thank the Celts, because if we didn’t have Halloween, where and when would we get a chance to dress up in weird costumes and do crazy things. Other than at a Masonic Hall or a clown convention.
The Celts, being the ancient Irish and/or possibly the Scots, started Halloween as a festival of harvest one year several decades ago when they had an accidental crop of way too many pumpkins, and decided to carve scary faces on the extra ones.
They (the Celts) are also credited with inventing a Halloween game that consisted of children knocking on doors and running away. According to the website pumpkinpatchesandmore.org, they called this game “knock-a-dolly.” No one knows why.
Down in good old Parkvale growing up, we called it “knock-a-door-ginger” and I could never figure out what that meant either. Although it was great fun (or so I’m told) kids certainly didn’t play knock-a-door-ginger on Halloween.
After all, once the Halloween tradition reached North America sometime in the early 1950s, it was quickly modified by sugar-addicted Americans and Canadians so that children would get huge handfuls of candy after knocking on a door. So of course, the last thing any sensible kid was going to do was to take off on Halloween.
Be that as it may, there are many Halloween traditions in many foreign countries that may or may not involve knocking on doors and filling pillow cases with goodies. For example, in random alphabetical order:
Austria: In Austria, some folks leave a lamp, bread and water out on a table overnight. No, it’s not for a Jolly Old Elf dressed up in a red suit, it’s to welcome the dead souls back to Earth. Dead souls who apparently aren’t that fussy about what they eat.
Belgium: It’s reported that black cats are really bad luck in Belgium, especially on Halloween night, when it is customary for Belgiumites to light a candle to remember dead relatives, unless of course the dead relatives happen to be black cats.
Czech Republic and Slovakia: Citizens here place chairs by the fireside on Halloween night. One chair for each living family member and one for each family member’s spirit. Seeing that there are many large families in this part of Europe, this tradition was started many years ago by a furniture rental store.
England: Instead of pumpkins, some Scots and Irish used to carve turnips, which is weird enough, but not to be outdone traditional English kids sculpted large beets, called beetroots and which are, of course, also known as “punkies.” They would then carry these punkies through the streets singing the Punkie Night Song (really) and knock on doors and ask for money. Whereupon the hapless inhabitants would dig out enough moola to make the kids and their song and their punkies go away as quickly as possible.
France: In France, they don’t go for dressing up and carving vegetables in honour of dead relatives or in order to scare away spirits. In fact, according to same website scientifically cited earlier, Halloween was “virtually unknown” in France until around 1996. It was only then that the French realized North Americans were having way too much fun on Oct. 31 and decided to join the party and dress up a bit and drink copious amounts of wine. Which makes Halloween just a regular weeknight in France.
Germany: In the Rhineland, people hide away their knives on Halloween night, so that returning spirits can do them no harm. This is why they don’t carve pumpkins (because they have no knives, you see). Also, knife-happy spirits are the reason many Germans stay up all Halloween night with loaded shotguns.
Hong Kong: Here, Halloween is known as Yue Lan or the Festival of Hungry Ghosts. Apparently some Hong Kongites burn fruit or money or even set fire to pictures of fruit or money to “placate angry ghosts that may be looking for revenge.” Those Hong Konganians take pictures of everything.
Mexico: Halloween lasts three days in Mexico! It’s called El Dia de los Muertos (translation: Give Me some Candy) and once again, is all about the Dead, or to be more precise, the Un-living. However, this is a joyous celebration of the spirit world involving people dressing up like the ugly ghouls in Tim Burton’s movie The Nightmare Before Christmas and parading through the streets with a live person in a coffin. Needless to say, The Days of the Dead celebration in Mexico involves a great deal of tequila.
Romania: You only get one guess as to what the most popular Halloween costume is in this quaint little country where Transylvania is located. That’s right, everyone dresses like Shriners. Just kidding, because since this is the birthplace of Dracula, who is one of the world’s most well-known vampires (except for that guy in the Twilight books), there is a real dearth of vampire costumes in Romania this time of year.
Also there is always a serious shortage of garlic and wooden crosses in all the Transylvanian vampire stores in October.
But there’s no shortage of cheesy ghoul, goblin and ghost stuff in North American stores during Halloween — or as the Americans call it: the most lucrative commercial event next to Christmas.
But as we’ve seen in this little historical, occasionally accurate glimpse into the traditions of the odd celebration we know as Halloween, all around the world it’s all about wearing costumes and lighting candles, carving weird faces and designs on various hollowed-out gourds, and feeding spirits and spooks all kinds of earthly comestibles so that they won’t be mad at us.
But really, when it comes down to it, for many of us Canucks it’s really all about the treats, isn’t it? Hands up those who have already dug into the candy stash you’ve purchased solely to give out to the kids at your door on Halloween night.
I thought so.
Harley Hay is a local freelance writer, award-winning author, filmmaker and musician. His column appears on Saturdays in the Advocate. His books can be found at Chapters, Coles and Sunworks in Red Deer.