October 31, East Lothian
From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggetty beasties and things that go bump in the night, may the Good Lorrrrd deliver us.
Our mother used to tuck us in bed with this terrifying, yet comforting little homily (along with the one about bedbugs),and in the cold autumn evenings told us the ghostly story of the doomed Tam O' Shanter, who galloped his mare Meg through the darkest of dark nights.
It's no wonder that Hallow'een is my favorite holiday, for many excellent and compelling reasons;the crisp fall night, the moon, the leaves crackling, the ghoulies and the ghosties--and the chance to peer nosily into other peoples' living rooms, one night a year. We used to live in a neighborhood where our teenaged babysitter's father handed out shots of single malt to the adult chaperones, but we moved.
When we lived in Scotland for a while, a couple of years ago, we weren't sure if they "did" Hallow'een. We enthusiastically knew about Samhein--the Druidic summer's end, which involves bonfires and mystical otherworlds, but these ceremonies seemed more popular in touristy Edinburgh than in semi rural Scotland, and when I mentioned it to a friend, she laughed. Okay, I get it. We asked someone else, and were sniffily told, in no uncertain terms, that Hallow'een is an American import Scotland could better do without. BBC Scotland devoted a certain amount of airtime to this rowdy behavior producing controversy in the days leading up to the end of October, but it was clear by the costumes, candies and pumpkin bags on the High street, and the energetic preparations for monster bashes at local pubs, that Hallow'een is alive and well north of Gretna Green. The Scottish term for all this was "goin' guising" but it sounded pretty familiar. Tom stocked up, I cut pumpkins, lit them and set them in windows, and we waited.
Here's how it works at home. Really little kids show up way too early, sometimes before it's even dark, which should be outlawed. The wear costumes from Old Navy, Disney or the expensive Waldorf toy store downtown. Their careful parents allow them to take one peanut- free sweet from Tom's brimming bowls and are hopeful that it will be an organic gummy Fruit Snack. The kids squabble over Three Musketeers.
By six, the tiny ones have given over to mid sized goblins who ask if they can have three candies. Some of them (fewer and fewer) collect pennies for Unicef. By 8 pm the middle and high school crowds, out on their own, dressed casually in a last minute sheet or black jacket, cruise for goodies. Finally, at 9, on the verge of blowing out the pumpkins, we get the college crowd-- first years still hungry for their childhood, wearing the best costumes of the evening, and decorously thankful about cleaning us out of the remnant Raisinettes and Smarties.
Things, (she said darkly), are different in Scotland. The pumpkins sat, one in the window and one on the front door step, burning wickedly in the dark. Our neighbor's tiny children came by at 6 (in Scotland in late October it is dark, dark, dark by 4:30) and then silence. I went outside to case the joint, looking for marauding bands of ghoulish adolescents. It was so quiet I could hear the sea in the sheltered bay, a couple of hundred yards behind us. 7 pm, no one. Tom looked hopefully at the (modest for him) bowl of Mars bars. By 8 I figured it wasn't worth it to stick new candles in the pumpkins, I'd just let them burn down, if the strengthening wind didn't blow them out first.
At 8:15 the door was hammered by the sound of a million demonically thundering fists. I eagerly opened the door, ready to let that devil in. A trio of twelve year old Harry Potters looked me over politely, and asked if I was ready for the riddle. A riddle? What about I give you a treat, you agree not to trick, and that's it? What kind of celtic madness is this? I didn't guess that kid's riddle (some insider's Scottish joke), nor either of his mates. Cost-- three handsful of sweets, and a lesson learned. Six more sets of Harry Potters, a few Dumbledores and a Deatheater, twice as many tortuous riddles; an hour later, the cupboard was bare, and I was a confirmed idiot.
By 9:30 All Hallow's Eve,we blew the pumpkin out, turned the entry light off, and walked across the dark village green, down the windy lane to the fire- bright pub, for a pint. The wind whipped up a few ghoulies, a bogle and goblin or two, taunting us with gusts of the sea, on our dark walk home.
Tam O' Shanter
This truth fand honest Tam o' Shanter,
As he frae Ayr ae night did canter:
(Auld Ayr, wham ne'er a town surpasses,
For honest men and bonie lasses).
O Tam! had'st thou but been sae wise,
As taen thy ain wife Kate's advice!
She tauld thee weel thou was a skellum,
A blethering, blustering, drunken blellum;
That frae November till October,
Ae market-day thou was na sober;
That ilka melder wi' the Miller,
Thou sat as lang as thou had siller;
That ev'ry naig was ca'd a shoe on
The Smith and thee gat roarin' fou on;
That at the Lord's house, ev'n on Sunday,
Thou drank wi' Kirkton Jean till Monday,
She prophesied that late or soon,
Thou wad be found, deep drown'd in Doon,
Or catch'd wi' warlocks in the mirk,
By Alloway's auld, haunted kirk.