Saturday 27 October 2012

Hallowe'en is rearing its ugly head in Bucharest tonight, four days early


Samhain (pronoun­ced SAH-WEEN), nowadays known as Hallowe'en, approaches. A time, the Druids taught, when the earth begins to deaden and the chasm separating living and dead thins out. The Catholics renamed it All Souls' Eve. It is now a marketing campaign for various businesses, in Romania as everywhere else. 

Just as the North American grey squirrel has made the red squirrel almost extinct so has the North American Hallowe'en taken over with extraordinary swiftness, extinguishing older, weaker traditions. This too is life, I suppose, but it is part of the process by which the whole world is becoming plastic.

Hallowe'en, traditionally marked by apple bobbing, was almost dead in England when I was a boy and I never heard of anyone bobbing apples except in books, but Hallowe'en was taken by the English to America and has been exported back to us and worldwide in recent years, for purely commercial reasons. Romania has her own traditions about ghosts walking the earth on St. Andrew's Eve, 29 November, which alas are nowadays being submerged by Hallowe'en, just as the commercial Western St. Valentine's Day (increasingly the word saint is dropped nowadays) is subsuming Dragobete.

So the American Hallowe’en is an originally pagan and Catholic festival which now reflects America’s core Protestant and English identity. As America becomes less Protestant and less English the traditions change with the times. In America it is the tradition to wear fancy dress for Hallowe'en parties and in the last few years rules have emerged to discourage party goers from ‘perpetuating racial or gender stereotypes’. Dressing as Chinamen or Red Indians or, heavens forfend, from blacking up to impersonate the President, all these are not acceptable in the USA, a country in the grip of a collective nervous breakdown about any sort of discrimination. Rules have emerged to guide party goers.

This costume is definitely outré, it appears:

As is this:

I thought Mynah Bird looked very fetching in her scanty Nazi stormtrooper costume on The Two Ronnies, but that was long ago and in another country and besides the wench is dead.

Out of laziness, I asked my friend Valentin Nas, who knows very much about Romanian folklore and traditions, to advise me about the significance of St. Andrew's Eve and he tells me:

There are many legends and customs related to the night of St. Andrew when the souls of the dead are believed to come out of graves and fight the living undead. The ghosts return to their graves at dawn, when they hear the first rooster. If the undead have nobody to fight, they go to people's homes and try to suck the blood of those they can catch. Garlic is believed to keep them away, therefore, in order to stay safe from ghosts and undead, people use to brush with garlic their windows and doors before evening comes. 

A common tradition on this day is to plant wheat seeds and keep them indoors until New Year’s Eve. Tradition says that the person who plants the wheat will be able to tell how next year will be based on how the plants will look like. Another tradition is to take small branches from a fruit tree, put them in water and keep them until the Christmas holiday. The branches should bloom, which is another sign of how fruitful next year will be.

The last line of Agatha Christie's Hallowe'en Party provides a final thought for the 31st., from Hercule Poirot: 

Halloween is not a time for the telling of the stories macabre, but to light the candles for the dead. Come, mes amis, let us do so.
Note written on November 1st: Last night charming girls in Hallowe'en costumes walking down my street looking for Hallowe'en parties made me realise that I only wrote part of the truth. Hallowe'en  is transmogrified and made charming by Romanians and it is great craich.


  1. I wouldn't have thought the Halloweeen costumes I've already seen could be offensive to anyone except the undead community.

  2. Oy! I did quite a lot of apple-bobbing when I was a child. And played Nelson's Eye... but I learned very early on what Hallowe'en was about which is more than can be said for kids today who think it's trick or treating and dressing up. that's all fine and fun but surely, shouldn't they know the real meaning of All Hallow's Eve?

    Sair Jay

    1. David in Banja Luka4 November 2015 at 16:19

      I too bobbed for apples as a child (sometimes getting a mouthful of a bar of soap) on Halloween and I am not much older than Paul.

      Nelsons eye - done that too, in Cubs I think.

  3. great writing Paul. "subsume" is one of my favourite words. culturally subsumed we are :-s

    the part on politically correct costumes - brilliant


  4. Very interesting. Discussing the exact same subject recently, I came to the conclusion that I must be a boring, miserable old fogey, because I dislike immensely the commercialisation of this tradition and everything about it. When I was a child there was very little thought about Halloween, although I think I was aware of it being something celebrated in US. As with all our traditional celebrations, people have lost the meaning of most, as they have quickly been reduced to huge money making commercialised events. Trick or treat, in my opinion is simply obtaining money or goods with menaces. They catch them young these days.

  5. David in Banja Luka4 November 2015 at 16:21


    I like the comparison with the squirrels.

    Very apt.