Eat that pumpkin!
Happy Halloween everyone! But what are we actually celebrating?
1. The erosion of local traditions by American ones?
Increasingly, our children talk about going, ‘Trick or Treating’.
In Scotland, traditionally we go ‘guising’ instead of ‘trick or treating’ and there’s an important difference: To guise, you first learn a poem or a joke in order to have something to offer in exchange for your goodies: Trick or Treating demands a reward - or else. However cute our wee devils are looking, this practice is essentially teaching blackmail. While the Scottish tradition brings communities together, its modern counterpart can alienate lonely or vulnerable people.
American-style carved pumpkins are now considered essential Halloween objects, with 2 out of 5 UK people buying one this year. Traditionally in Scottish culture we made neep (turnip) lanterns. There’s no doubt that pumpkins are easier (and safer) to carve, but (unlike in America) as they are not part of our cultural lexicon, few UK people bother to use their lovely flesh for food.
Spare a thought for the humble turnip. Did you know that in mid 18th century Scotland it saved untold animal and human lives? Prior to the turnip's introduction as a crop, without winter food or grazing, people and cattle regularly starved to death.
“Most cattle had to be slaughtered at the beginning of Winter, and those that were kept only barely made it through until the new feed grew in late spring. So weak were they that that had to be carried out to pasture”.
And last year, an estimated 18,000 tonnes of edible pumpkin squash was tipped into our household bins.
2. Talking of bins. Insane quantities of single use plastic?
Halloween is commercially bigger than ever before, with shops selling plastic pumpkins, glow-in-the dark masks, laughing gravestones, bendy skeletons etc. Most of this gets made from single use plastic. Few people have a Halloween box in the attic beside the Christmas box. Halloween decorations are manufactured to spend one week in a garden and 500 years (the next 10 generations of your family) decomposing in landfill.
The equivalent of 520 4-tonne elephants worth of plastic got sold for Halloween last year - in the UK alone.
3. Celebrating the torture of women?
Ah witches! How funny!
An estimated 4,000 to 6,000 Scottish women were tried for witchcraft between 1563 (the passing of the Witchcraft Act) and 1597 (the date of The Great Scottish Witch Hunt) with at least 1,500 executed. Witch Trials, Witch Hunts and executions continued for a further two centuries (until the British parliament finally repealed the Act in 1736).
Although Witch Trials happened across much of Europe, Scotland suffered an extremely high number for such a small nation (with less than a quarter of England’s population at this time, Scotland had three times the number of trials).
Mostly – but not exclusively – older women were accused of witchcraft or of talking to the devil and were strangled and then burned. The charges against them include healing the sick (the accusers assuming if a person could heal she could also harm).
Not coincidentally, accused women were often land owners, with the accusation of being a witch used a legal way to free up her land.
The history of Witch Trials in Scotland is the story of our women: the stigmatisation of female powers being perceived as evil-female and needing repressed - and is still to this day characterised by revulsion and distaste of women ageing. During three whole centuries, women helped deliver healthy babies into a society which turned up en-mass to witness her die a deliberately painful death as a 'crone'.
Much modern medicine - including the practice of midwifery stems from ‘wise-woman’ skills. As well as the obvious mourning the victims of such barbaric times, we should consider what knowledge and tradition have been lost to our society. Still widespread across large parts of Europe, the traditional cures of herbal medicine have all but died out within contemporary British culture. Herbal medicine is niche not mainstream, but at what detriment to our nation’s health?
While personally I would like to see Halloween become a national day of remembrance to the victims of the Witch Trials, a more realistic approach could be taking some time to learn a little more about the history of Scotland - which is full of enough ghosts and battles and mysterious happenings to satisfy the most toffee-apple addled child.
(I suggest you start here, with Janet Forsyth - the Westray Storm Witch: tried as a witch for saving a ship - but mysteriously disappeared the night before her death).
While a national day of remembrance for the Witch Trials is a long way off, there are growing calls for a national monument in Scotland. Some local authorities are making headway, including a proposal in Fife to rebuild a lighthouse as a national memorial to victims of Scottish witch trials.
As a nation it’s high time we shine a light onto one of the darkest periods of our history.
In the meantime, could we please just put an end to effigies of witches hanging from trees?
Instead, turn towards your community at this time of year. A Polish student told me today that her Halloween tradition used to be visiting the graves of ancestors - which must be just one more hard aspect of leaving her homeland. Let’s help people feel welcome in their new communities and participate in public Halloween events. As well as a party in Crieff town square, this year, Drummond Gardens ( a courtly, 17th century Scottish Renaissance garden) put on a fabulous fund-raising spooky show with creepy games and sights.
Local care homes also often invite children to guise to adults in their care: a pleasure for everyone involved. Buy second-hand clothes to turn into costumes, or, if you don’t have imagination (or time), simply buy your costumes second-hand.
And above all, eat that pumpkin!
Images of Halloween Party at Drummond Gardens, 2019
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