Sunday, October 26, 2014

Halloween: Blame it on the Beaker people

Back in the day, the celebration of Halloween in a Home Counties style consisted of the strange ritual of bobbing for apples and the lookout for witches who had taken to the night skies on their broomsticks. Apart from these minor treats, the main importance of Halloween lay with the fact that its arrival made clear that Bonfire Night was only a few days away. Halloween was an incidental celebration and one which, according to the Home Counties' view of the world, caused greater excitement north of the border. It was therefore rather like New Year's Eve, an occasion for Andy Stewart to enquire of the whereabouts of Donald's "troosers" and for the Jimmy Shand Band to provoke all manner of kilt-wearing and alien dance routines.

The idea that Halloween is all somehow an American invention is of course total nonsense. From ancient times, the Celts had been enjoying their equivalent of bobbing for apples, then Christianity religiously colonised Halloween and eventually gave it the title of All Hallows' Eve (borrowed from the Scots) and made it the first day of the three-day Allhallowtide extravaganza, followed by All Saints' and All Souls' Days. Even trick-or-treating, supposedly also American, was pre-dated by what the Scots and the Irish got up to. Halloween is thus about as old as Scottish hills or at least the Celts who would have taken one look at those hills and thought, I'm not climbing up those.

A Mallorcan view of Halloween, the politically-traditionally-correct view, is that it is indeed solely an American (and British) invention. There has long been a Halloween tradition but a very simple one. It has involved children being given sweets, the elderly munching on "bunyols" (doughnuts, some say fritters) and chestnuts and a certain amount of flower-giving. Allhallowtide, in a Mallorcan style, has its big day, and that is 1 November and not 31 October. Consequently, the alleged Americanisation of Halloween is all part of an assault on tradition in the same way that Santa Claus and Christmas trees have been imported in an attempt to upstage the Three Kings. It is tradition imperialism brought to you courtesy of Coca-Cola and Hollywood.

But Mallorca is a more cosmopolitan society than it once was, and its cultural mix at Halloween time doesn't just comprise fizzy drinks, horror movies and ASBO-case teenagers threatening to put a brick through a window if you don't divvy up. Lurking in this cultural mix is one called Spanish, and so if one wants to be historically accurate, the distaste towards Halloween from those of a Mallorcan fundamentalist persuasion may also lie with the relationship with the Peninsula and with the ancient origins of the Spanish and the Mallorcans. And these origins have a great deal to do with the Celts. Or not, in the case of the Mallorcans.

During the nineteenth century, the Spaniards generally pooh-poohed the idea that the Celts had anything much to do with them. However, historians and scholars were to reveal a rather different picture and they drew maps to show it. Great swathes of Spain (and pretty much all of Portugal) had, once upon a time, been inhabited by Celts of one form or another and so cousins of the ones in Scotland arranging their apples in a bowl of water at Halloween. Mallorca and the Balearics, however, had a separate development, a non-Celtic one. But then, if one really wants to go back into antiquity, it is possible to make a case for the Bell Beaker people, who were knocking around on Mallorca from roughly the middle of the third millennium BC, having been a sort of proto-Celtic people and thus part of what became a whole European family of Celtic peoples, a family which eventually started celebrating Halloween way before America was discovered and John Carpenter cast Donald Pleasance.

There aren't many, if any people who would hold up the Beaker people as justification for Halloween being celebrated in Mallorca and likewise there wouldn't be those who would point to a Celtic history in Spain as a justification. But while it is fair to say that current-day celebration of Halloween in much of Spain and Mallorca is imported, this isn't so everywhere. Galicia and Asturias are two regions which do have a tradition which reflects a merging of the Celtic and the Catholic.

But essentially, the Spanish spin on Halloween is that it is a day of reflection prior to the visits to the cemeteries on All Saints' Day. It hasn't therefore been looked upon as an evening to go out and party. Nevertheless, the Night of the Dead or the Night of the Witches has existed in the consciousness for centuries. It has long been one of the most mysterious nights of the year, a time when spirits can cross from the spiritual to the physical world. Not all Mallorcans might agree with the transformation of Halloween, but then back in the Home Counties in the 1960s all we ever did was bob for apples. Oh, and watch for witches.

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