With Halloween approaching, a landscape gardener ponders on the origin of lanterns. And we wonder on the Worcestershire variety.
I’ve decided that colours in nature are far more passive than that found on man-made packaging. They are more in tune with our senses, having evolved side-by-side, age-by-age, with our own perception rather than the sudden arrival of a brightly coloured crisp packet. In a word, natural colours are more . . . natural to us.
I reached this momentous discovery the other day, when I ventured into the Great Indoors (a local Worcester super market), and suffered a slight optic overload when confronted with the massed ranks of Halloween-inspired gaudiness. There they were: grinning witches with bright green, slightly toxic looking faces. Slightly malevolent Jack-O-Lanterns with jagged teeth. Plastic masks that flopped over the edge of shelves with blood dripping fangs or lupine maws gazing hungrily at me from a lower shelf. I’m not a religious man, but I was tempted to make the sign of the cross and move quickly on.
At this time of year we are besieged with merchandise designed mainly for children to sell sugar-filled treats too. (Or to encourage them to go and knock on doors and beg for sugar-filled treats. Perhaps we should teach them more self-sufficiency: can’t they grow their own sugar-filled treats? Oh – that’s a knock on the door – it’s probably the Health and Safety Executive come to terminate the idea of engendering any self-responsibility in the young).
But it did get me wondering. I know several people from Eastern Europe who work in my sector, and they grew up with very different ideas of what Halloween was to what our Hollywood inspired nights of horror have evidently become. In the Catholic countries east of the Rhine, Halloween is a religious occasion that is marked by remembering the dead. People my age who grew up there certainly didn’t experience the craziness that now helps to sell gaudiness on a commercial scale. Instead, they would light candles in jars and leave flowers at graves and contemplate the lives of the deceased and say prayers for them.
Of course it is easy to see why Halloween has become such a commercial success story. Years ago, (and before the new-fangled invention of the wireless) we told stories around the fire to entertain ourselves. People like to be scared, provided they know it’s all fun. Halloween takes that element of family frivolity and hikes it up to the next level, with dressing up, games, and the hollowing out of large vegetables to show off our artistic skill with sharp knives. Barring accidents, what’s not to like?
It set me my mind going, looking at all the Jack-O-Lanterns in the shops. Just how did the pumpkin become so associated with Halloween? The concept seems to have started in Ireland, as a cultural riposte to the Willow-the-Wisp natural phenomena that appeared in the peat bogs as glowing lights (modern scientific theories explain this as cold flames or the results of a demonstration of piezoelectric discharge – or it could just be snowy owls, which would be a very rare sight in Ireland on any occasion). The other idea, again of Irish origin, is that it developed from the legends of Stingy Jack, a veritable reprobate who, after tricking the devil into not taking his soul, found that he could not enter either Heaven or Hell upon his death. Therefore he was doomed to wander the earth, with a candle in a vegetable to light his way. (No account really explains why he was forced to do it this way – but perhaps the devil has an irreverent sense of humour).
But as it turns out, our own humble county has its own version of the Jack-O-Lantern. Carved from that other winter vegetable, the turnip, the people of Worcestershire used to display ‘Hoberdy’s Lantern’ in hedgerows to frighten passing travellers. It’s a tradition that is mentioned around the late eighteenth century.
So this year, if I have the time, I might pluck a suitable turnip from the vicinity (or buy one from a super market and make jeering noises as I march by the gaudy Halloween marketing department!) and chisel out a horrid visage, before gorging myself on sugar-filled snacks.