Guest writer Paul Wood covers the hot topic of Halloween, which is nowadays celebrated in Romania too, with parties and themed events organized throughout this week.
Wednesday night was Samhain (pronounced SAH-WEEN), nowadays known as Hallowe’en. A time, the Ancient Druids taught, when the earth begins to deaden and the chasm separating living and dead thins out. This was in the days before Britain was conquered by Rome. The Catholics renamed Samhain All Souls’ Eve, the night when the souls suffering in purgatory walked the earth. It is now a marketing campaign for various businesses, in Romania as everywhere else.
Hallowe’en, traditionally marked by apple bobbing, was almost dead in England when I was a boy and I never heard of anyone bobbing apples except in books, but Hallowe’en was taken by the English to America and has been exported back to us and worldwide in recent years, for purely commercial reasons. Just as the North American grey squirrel has made the red squirrel almost extinct so has the North American Hallowe’en taken over with extraordinary swiftness, extinguishing older, weaker traditions. This too is life, I suppose, but it is part of the process by which the whole world is becoming plastic. Romania has her own traditions about ghosts walking the earth on St. Andrew’s Eve, 29 November, which alas are nowadays being submerged by Hallowe’en, just as the commercial Western St. Valentine’s Day (increasingly the word saint is dropped nowadays) is subsuming Dragobete.
There are many legends and customs related to the night of St. Andrew when the souls of the dead are believed to come out of graves and fight the living undead. The ghosts return to their graves at dawn, when they hear the first rooster. If the undead have nobody to fight, they go to people’s homes and try to suck the blood of those they can catch. Garlic is believed to keep them away, therefore, in order to stay safe from ghosts and undead, people use to brush with garlic their windows and doors before evening comes.
A common tradition on this day is to plant wheat seeds and keep them indoors until New Year’s Eve. Tradition says that the person who plants the wheat will be able to tell how next year will be based on how the plants will look like. Another tradition is to take small branches from a fruit tree, put them in water and keep them until the Christmas holiday. The branches should bloom, which is another sign of how fruitful next year will be.
So the American Hallowe’en is an originally pagan and Catholic festival which survived the Reformation and now reflects America’s core Protestant and English identity. As America becomes less Protestant and less English the traditions change with the times. In America it is the tradition to wear fancy dress for Hallowe’en parties and in the last few years rules have emerged to discourage partygoers from ‘perpetuating racial or gender stereotypes’. Last year some ‘sexy racist’ costumes were advertised for sale which caused offence. This year dressing as Chinamen or Red Indians or, heavens forfend, from blacking up to impersonate the President, all these are not acceptable in the USA, a country in the grip of a collective nervous breakdown about any sort of discrimination. Rules have emerged to guide partygoers.
So I do not like Hallowe’en – call it the jealousy of the world’s former leading power for her supplanter if you like, but last night charming girls in Hallowe’en costumes walking down my street looking for Hallowe’en parties made me see that it is only given to any of us to see a shadow of one side of the truth. In fact any excuse for a party is a good thing and more than that Hallowe’en is transmogrified and made charming by Romanians in a way that makes it thoroughly Romanian. Most important of all it is great craich.
The last line of Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party provides a final thought from Hercule Poirot: Halloween is not a time for the telling of the stories macabre, but to light the candles for the dead. Come, mes amis, let us do so.
By Paul Wood, Guest Writer
Paul Wood is the owner of Apple Search, the executive search company, and is writing a book about Bucharest where he has lived since 1998. His personal blog is here. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Romania Insider.com.