Tuesday, October 31, 2017

From Samhain To Dark Night: Halloween

There is, one feels, still a sense in Mallorca that Halloween isn't really anything to do with Mallorca. Natives of a certain tradition look on aghast as supermarkets mount displays of ghoulish costumes, secure in a belief that it is all a terrifying Anglo-Saxon import running amok in the invention of customs - commercialised ones in particular. So while the ubiquitous DJ Juan Campos will tonight be trawling his database in search of witch-themed tunes with which to bedevil Son Amar's already wicked Vampirika, the hardy traditionalists will be sticking to the view that witches only emerge in Mallorca on one of the two nights of fire in January and June.

One doesn't really need reminding that the Anglo-Saxon angle isn't entirely accurate. It was the Celts who started it all and Christianity eventually got round to borrowing All Hallows' Eve from the Scots. Whatever ancient Celtic blood may still circulate in the veins of Mallorcans, it has been diluted by many, many centuries of cultural solution. As prehistoric Mallorca owed something to migrant Celtic tribes, then there is a loose - very loose - family connection to the Scots.

The distance of millennia, however, has meant that the correct version of a Mallorca 31 October is its function as the eve of All Saints. While there are examples of paganism that can be said to survive, albeit highly modified, in certain Mallorcan traditions, an acknowledgement of Halloween isn't one of them. In Christian terms, All Saints' Eve was a necessary precursor to the Christian invention of All Saints' Day (some time in the fourth century, or so it would seem). But in a way, given a Mallorcan fascination for the demonic and a dark side, Halloween's pagan origins would fit nicely. The Celtic winter started with Samhain (1 November insofar as there was a 1 November), so the eve of Samhain was the occasion for sacrifice and for allowing the souls of the dead to return to their earthly homes, the connection having been made between the death of summer and human death.

As an aside, it is interesting that 1 November in Mallorca should now represent the official start of the winter tourism season, given that 31 October is the final day of the official summer season. But let's not dwell on the Day of the Dead being a metaphor for tourism's low period of the year. And in any event, the Day of the Dead isn't 1 November; it is 2 November, All Souls' Day.

It is perhaps easier to consider Halloween as part of the three-day Allhallowtide, given the degree to which the dead are the common theme and can move from one day to the other. Tradition thus decrees, for instance, the legacy of the "pa dels morts", the bread of the dead. It has been noted that the placing of bread on a tomb on All Souls' Day was a custom from at least the mid-fourteenth century. "Panetets de mort" have over the centuries ceased to be bread-based and have been transformed into something tastier - and sweeter. Rosaries of sweets that can include chocolate coins, marzipan and what have you seem to have their origins in these distant-time panetets, which were strung together like beads. Having a hole to allow them to be held together may also explain the preference for bunyol doughnuts with a hole in the middle over the Allhallowtide festivities.

That grand oracle of all things Mallorcan and Balearic, the Archduke Louis Salvador, does perhaps provide one of the better insights into how Halloween was in the final years of the nineteenth century. Or rather, wasn't. He confirms the view that not a lot was ever made of All Hallows' Eve, but the rest of Allhallowtide was a different matter. On All Souls' Day, noted the Archduke, "it is a general custom to hear at least one mass for the souls of deceased relatives and to visit the cemetery where candles are lit on many graves".

The Archduke in fact made quite a study of the treatment of death and the dead in Mallorca, which is probably a story for another time. Suffice it to say that he wouldn't have encountered the "Nit Fosca", a recent tradition which - as far as I can make out - is confined to Pollensa.

"Nit fosca (de l'ànima)" means the dark night (of the soul). In its strictest form, it refers to a spiritual crisis along the journey to the union with God. I can't say for certain that this is where they got hold of the title in Pollensa, but "nit fosca" is nevertheless appropriate enough for modern-day ghoulishness at Halloween. And yes, on Halloween, they have a dark night - a night of terror. This is for young and old, and the old (fifteen years or older) take their turn in indulging in this terror from half nine until midnight. Such is the terror, one is advised, that it is not an event recommended for those with a heart condition.

Just as well to be forewarned, one supposes. There are enough dead as it is at this time of year.

* The video is of Nit Fosca in Pollensa, 2014.

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