31 October 2009

For Halloween let's enjoy Calan Gaeaf

For Halloween let's enjoy Calan Gaeaf

It’s Fright Night which seems to be the name that Halloween is now being marketed under.  This is not its first branding makeover as All Saint’s Day was shifted from 13 May to 1 November, and so All Hallows’ Even to 31 October, to hijack and repress the traditional British festival of Calan Gaeaf and the Celtic festival of Samhain.  This was done by Popes Gregory III and Gregory IV in the 8th and 9th Centuries.   Halloween derives from All Hallows' Even.

It’s a pity that he did this as it hasn’t really worked and this Christian Festival is actually celebrated still as a pagan night; it would have been much better to have embraced Calan Gaeaf like the Mexican Catholics have embraced the El Día de los Muertos or All Souls' Day, which traces itself back 3000 years to the earlier Aztec, Maya and Totanac traditions.

Both traditions have similar ideas.  These are that Calan Geaaf and Samhain are the end of the lighter half of the year and the start of the darker half of the year, so we are really moving from summertime to wintertime.  The belief was that as the year moves from one phase to the next, the thin gossamer barrier between the Living World and the Otherworld shimmers, stretches and thins and dead spirits can move from the Otherworld to the Living World.

So it’s a time to remember our ancestors and all those who have come before us and pay homage to those that have brought us here.  Lighting a candle inside a carved head pays tribute to departed familial souls. 

But unfortunately some nastier spirits can cross over, so we must dress up in scary clothes to frighten them away, or at least for them to mistake our skeletal costumes for other evil spirits.

Traditionally, the lanterns were carved from a turnip and I remember many a boring day trying to carve out the tough inner of a turnip to carve a very crude face on it.  So as I eccentrically announced this week “the pumpkin is one of the greatest inventions!”  Carving a pumpkin is much simply than a turnip, so allows much more fanciful patterns to be made.  Also, the orange colours are much more beautiful than the white of a turnip and the smell much sweeter.

A pumpkin carved hag

Interestingly, pumpkins and turnips only became associated with Halloween in the mid 19th Century.  They have always been around but really they were more a celebration of harvest and thanksgiving for the bounty of the earth rather than anything to do with Fright Night.  Perhaps though these lanterns or jack o’lanterns may protect the home from evil spirits, so they are a quite good co-option.

We enjoy carving quite complicated pumpkin patterns and this year, we have made a hag, a ghoul and a dragon.

We also used some Flying Pumpkin Lanterns, which were great fun.  These are based on Chinese flying lanterns called "Khom Fay" or "Khom Loy", where the Chinese have had these for 2000 or so years.  Basically, it is a paper lantern stretched over a bamboo frame with a small candle in the centre that gives the lantern lift, just like a mini hot air balloon.  Ours were decorated as pumpkins.

It actually took quite a lot of time for the pumpkin lantern to fill out with hot air and we needed to tease out the creases and edges to let it bulge out fully.  However, when it was ready to go, I could feel it straining at my fingertips and then (after releasing), it shot upwards for about 100 metres, caught the wind and headed northwards at a far lick towards Helperby.  We lost sight of it after about 10 minutes when the lamp flickered a bit and then obviously went out.  Some farmer will have a surprise when he finds a flattened pumpkin paper lantern lying in his field.  Awesome fun.