Trick or Treat?


October 31, 2011 by Rhi

On Sunday, I went a-visiting a different local church to my usual one. Mostly thanks to a pulpit exchange the previous Sunday, where the preacher from the other church visited us, and really got me thinking. So, having slept slightly late for my usual service, I decided to take a right turn down the hill, and attend the slightly closer church.

Anyways, I was warmly welcomed by the congregation, and afterwards, over a cup of coffee, got chatting about the usual things I do. I happened to mention that I had attended a Hallowe’en party the previous Wednesday with the Guides, and still had the Anchor Boys/BB one to look forward to this evening. There were slightly shocked faces, and they explained that they don’t really “allow” dressing up at Hallowe’en. It’s a common theme in churches around the country. When I was a Guider in Wales, the church we met in didn’t allow ANY kind of Hallowe’en parties at all. Which I always thought was a bit of a shame. But then, I grew up in Scotland. And we do Hallowe’en slightly differently here. Although I must admit, when I hear of my fellow countryfolk subscribing to the more modern take on All Hallow’s Eve celebrations, it does make me sad.

The idea of Trick or Treating is often seen as a crass Americanism. Well, there’s not much wrong with that in my book. But in Scotland, the tradition of “guising” dates back to pre-Christian times. The earliest recorded mention of guising dates back to 1895. I remember going round doors in my street on Hallowe’en, where instead of threatening householders with all manner of horrors if they refused to part with sweets, we were expected to perform in return for fruit, money or monkey nuts. In those blissful, pre-paedophlile days of the mid-1980s, the demand was often “tell a joke, sing a song, or show yer bum!” It’s sometimes suggested that the tradition of guising arose from the older tradition of “souling”, where poorer people would visit the doors of the wealthy, and offer to pray for the souls of the departed (who were thought, of course, to return on the evening of All Hallow’s Eve) in return for cakes and fruit. Either way, the tradition pre-dates the emergence of trick or treating in the UK by several decades. Oh, and our jack o’ lanterns were always made from turnips (or swedes as the sassenachs call them), which requires a lot more determination to carve than a pumpkin. But their purpose it to scare away the evil spirits of the dead which are said to return on the last night of October.

The tradition of dressing up as witches and other associate spirits also had a different root. When I hear of people worrying about the notion of small people dressing up as “evil spirits” lest they be mistaken for Satanist, I tend to refer them to the original motivation, which was as a disguise (hence the root of the phrase “guising”). The idea being, by dressing up in similar clothes to the warlocks and other oogey-woogey spirits, the children are protected. I can only assume that it’s clothes alone which mark someone out as part of the dead, and so by blackening your face, you can fool the spirits into thinking you’re one of them. In any case, the dressing up as a witch in this part of the country, stems from fear of the spirits, not as an attempt to emulate them.

One of the avenues of employment I’m currently exploring is storytelling, so I’m spending a lot of time researching folk tales to recount at various events, for people of all ages. It’s something that saddens me greatly – that we seem as a nation to be losing our traditions, and even those who should have such a strong feel for their roots (the church, for example, with the Hallowe’en traditions which it’s own belief in the dark arts helped to preserve for a long time) seem to have fallen under the spell of the 20th century misrepresentation.

So this evening, I’ll be heading to the Church to celebrate Hallowe’en with lots of very small people who will no doubt love the chance to dress up as a wizard (although I fully expect there to be a Batman, a cowboy, and hopefully at least one Doctor Who to combat my own Cyberman costume).  Then it’ll be home for a bit of spookiness in the form of my M R James anthology (possibly not a good idea, as Mr Bint is off doing a spoken word event in Embra tonight), and then a small moment to remember the souls of those who I know and love, and who are no longer here with us. Not that I think they are likely to haunt me tonight, or any other night, if I don’t. But tonight, and tomorrow, it’s nice to remember those we’ve lost. And I won’t be losing any sleep over the thought of ghouls and ghosties stalking my dreams.

However, before I go, please spare a small thought for the people of Llangernyw in North Wales this evening. According to legend, the small church in the village plays host, every Hallowe’en, to the Angelystor (or Recording Angel), who lists at midnight in a loud and booming voice the names of all those in the parish who will perish in the coming year. One brave soul, Sion ap Robert, challenged the Angelystor one year – only to hear his own name being read out loud! According to legend, he put a brave face on it, and some reports even suggest he lasted until October the following year, before finally succumbing.

So fear not if small creatures come a-knocking at your door this evening – they aren’t destined to go to hell for devil worship. But for a fully authentic experience, challenge them to earn their treats (but expect to hear a lot of pop hits, and jokes about bums and poo). And keep away from churches in North Wales. And don’t have nightmares.




2 thoughts on “Trick or Treat?

  1. brittajarvis says:

    Very interesting post, glad I don’t live in Llangernyw!

    • I used to live quite near there, and I was always tempted on Hallowe’en to go to the church! I figured as I didn’t live in the parish, I had nothing to fear. I think it’s a common theme in folk tales (especially in Wales, for some reason) of some kind of Angel of Death with a roll of the soon-to-be-dead. I’m researching a lot of old folk tales – I think I might share some of them here, because they’re very interesting!

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