I was terrified when I did the school run this morning. Instead of being greeted by the usual shy, sweet children, I cowered from hundreds of witches and vampires running amok, screaming at the top of their voices. Hallowe’en is here again.
For all that it has been hijacked by the American-Disney-Corporate entity, there are a lot of Hallowe’en traditions that are truly that – traditions. I’m not talking about trick-or-treat, most recently described as “dental Armageddon”, which has only really been a menace since the 1920s. What interests me most are the origins of this holiday and how tradition is reflected in our modern day interpretation of Hallowe’en.
Some 5000 years ago (yup – five thousand) the proto-Celts built a massive tomb near where Dublin now sits, aligning it with sunrise on the winter solstice. No-one knows exactly why the tomb was built, but it is an accurate astral chronometer. A thousand years before the Great Pyramids, five hundred years before Stonehenge, the proto-Celts’ remarkably sophisticated calendar consisted of twelve thirty-day months, with five additional festival days. Today is the festival of Samhain, the bridge between the end of one year and the beginning of the next.
It was said that on such days, the borders between this world and the realm of Faerie were at their weakest, allowing the Fair Folk access to the world of mortals. As the Church slowly hijacked local traditions, merging them with Christian doctrine, November 1st became All Hallows’ Day and Samhain became Hallowe’en. The Fair Folk were viewed as a hangover from Celtic paganism and were systematically vilified as monsters, goblins, and countless other nasty beings. Our custom of dressing up has gone on for centuries (possibly even millennia) as an attempt to disguise ourselves and confuse those spirits that do make it through the veil.
Just as with the Mexican Día de Muertos, this was also a time when you could send a message to departed friends and family. Gifts were left for the dead, amongst them the bounty of the harvest: nuts, apples, and the like. It’s a different worldview to look at the onset of winter as the beginning of the year, but looking at harvest as the culmination of a year’s work needs no explanation.
And what of pumpkins, I hear you ask? Well that one’s easy. When the Irish immigrants in the United States wanted to make their Samhain lanterns to ward off the evil spirits, they found that pumpkins were a lot easier to carve than the more traditional Irish turnip: the Irish are nothing if not practical. But what most people don’t realise is the grisly precursor to that part of the story. The Celts used to behead their enemies and eat the brains of their victims in a demonstration of superiority. The skulls were kept as lanterns for such days, to scare off the spirits of their former inhabitants. So for pumpkin, read turnip, read skull. And try not to anger any of your Irish friends today.
Nowadays, Hallowe’en has been adopted in many countries as a non-religious celebration, the first of many winter holidays of indulgence, and a great excuse for children and grown-ups alike to dress up in increasingly creative and terrifying costumes. Just don’t forget to book an appointment with the dentist when you dare to venture out again…
Last week’s depression has morphed into anger. I’m happy enough to admit that I’ve become a grumpy old man in general, but several comments over the course of the last seven days have left me fuming.
The British Prime Minister suggested that if you are a citizen of the world then you are, in fact, a citizen of nowhere. I’m sure that several thousand years ago, the Macedonians, Athenians and Spartans were all espousing similar thoughts. Yet when Greece was unified it ushered in an age of artistic, scientific and cultural advancement not seen again until the Renaissance. Sometimes you have to let things go to move forward.
The Devil’s Bible series is set in a time when there was no Germany, when there was no Italy. There was no Belgium, and the Netherlands had only just declared themselves independent of Spain. Theresa May’s words could well have been written by a Hessian or a Bavarian in the mid-17th century. And yet history has proven that it is indeed possible to maintain both a regional and a national identity, so why not a national and a supranational one? It’s like belonging to two clubs at the same time. In my position – British and Irish passports, a wife with British and German passports, living in Prague – such man-made definitions seem arbitrary.
Then someone much closer to home floored me with the statement that plants which don’t have deep roots don’t tend to survive long. I had voiced the opinion that the actions of the British Volk made the UK much less attractive to me and my family, and was all but accused of abandoning my heritage. Aside from the obvious quip about grass managing quite well with shallow roots, I started to consider what ‘having roots’ actually means.
To have roots in Northern Ireland could indeed mean a traditional upbringing with a strong work ethic and a down-to-earth practicality, overlaid with a love for education and a desire to better oneself. But it could also mean the small-minded insularity that comes from living in the corner of a forgotten island, the last stop before the empty vastness of the Atlantic. Throw in forty years of hatred and sectarian violence, and I question whether I really want to have roots there.
We are all in search of tribe. It doesn’t matter who you are, or where you come from, there is a joy in finding kindred spirits. They say you can choose your friends, but not your family – in many ways it’s the same thing for where you come from. I’m lucky enough to have been born in Ireland, and there is much (so much) that I love about the culture and identity that the Emerald Isle bestows upon its diaspora. A toss of the coin and I could have been born in Syria…
So yes, I’m angry, because I see so many decisions being made as knee-jerk reactions, instinct trumping (no pun intended) intellect. I just hope the voice of reason prevails before we explain Fermi’s paradox by destroying ourselves.
I wrote the bulk of The Stone Bridge in November 2015. It was finished by February 2016. It’s now October 2016, and the book still hasn’t been released. Why? Well that’s a long story…
The simple answer is that I tried to write the book that I wanted to write, when I should have written the book that it wanted to be. There’s a massive difference, and I screwed up. It took real guts for my editor to tell me that what I had written just didn’t work and I needed to redo it. Well, not all of it, thankfully. Only half.
I have spent months rewriting chapters, killing off characters, editing and re-editing words until I really am reaching the end of my tether. It’s only thanks to my inherent stubbornness (and a lot of support from friends) that the book will reach its conclusion. But this last stage is killing me – I feel like Jonny Brownlee at the end of the Triathlon World Series.
I haven’t written a blog post in what seems like decades. I haven’t posted on my author Facebook page for centuries. Summertime, life, kids, travel – I’ve let them all get in the way. I haven’t been really happy for months, and I blame the book for much of this. Perhaps my standards are higher than they were when I started. Perhaps those of my editor are. Perhaps deep down I just want to write a good story. Whatever the reason, I am looking forward to reaching the end, although I know that it’s just another beginning. I’ve started on the next series already…
I have always been a 95% person. Fine tuning, making something perfect, has never been my strong point, and now I’m paying the price for that character flaw.
Don’t worry – The Stone Bridge will hit the bookshelves soon. It has just cost more than I expected.