Forget killer clowns. Halloween was once a very different affair from the Americanised gorefest it is now. In its-original Irish form, as when I was growing up, it was an opportunity for children to dress up in their parents’ clothes, wear a mask and a hat and go begging from door to door for nuts, apples or money for bobbing — viz, sticking your head in a basin of water to dive after coins and apples. There was barmbrack — a sort of yeasted fruitbread you ate on the night — which contained a ring to predict who would be the next to marry (that dates it) and, in old-fashioned houses, a matchstick to predict poverty. It was quite a big thing, but over in a day or two. The ghost element, which was-perfectly real on account of this being just before All Souls’ Day, the day of the dead, was scary rather than traumatic. If any of us had gone around dressed as roadkill, the current popular new kiddy costume — complete with skidmarks and popped out eyes — we’d have been shunned.
What we didn’t do was start Halloween a month in advance. Halloween merchandise has been in my branch of M&S for three weeks: pumpkin-coloured, foil-covered chocolate and spooky themed cupcakes. (Halloween, like Mother’s Day, is now pretty well a festival of chocolate.) The actual night is something of an anticlimax after weeks of skeleton bodysuits and mummy costumes in shop windows. It’s hard to remember that once, the English didn’t do Halloween; Guy Fawkes Night was the thing. Now the entire month of October is given over to it, and it morphs seamlessly into bonfire night, conflating two distinct Catholic and Protestant festivities into a running autumn holiday season.
Hear Melanie McDonagh on deplorable modern holiday traditions
But that, in a way, is precisely the problem with the culture. We do not wait for things. We do not, as the mindfulness aficionados put it, inhabit the present moment. We do not live in the now. We are perpetually in a state of commercially generated expectation. It is perhaps one of the defining things about us. We anticipate experience to the point that we discount it by the time it happens. And that is a big change. You know the current trend for seasonality in food, whereby you’re meant to eat things in season, not have Brussels sprouts in summer or strawberries in December? Well, that’s what we need in the culture: a capacity to enjoy each season as it comes, not anticipate it. Take what happens in the shops. In the sweltering Indian summer of August and September, the retail sector had got shot of its summer stuff in the sales and had already moved on to black jumpers. We’ve obviously got Christmas merchandise in stores now, but a week before Christmas it’ll be discounted. There will be summer clothes by April, when we’re all freezing.
The tendency to anticipate things is most obvious in the way we treat Christmas and Easter, the two religious festivals embraced by the culture. In their original form, they had a rational pattern. You had a run-up to the big feast day — a month or so of preparing; hardcore fasting in the case of Lent, a more reflective season in the case of Advent (roughly the month before Christmas). It was an anti-cipatory sort of time, not yet celebratory. You might buy things or make things ahead of time, but you didn’t do your real festivities before the event. So, you didn’t eat chocolate bunnies before Easter Day, or hold an entire festive party season before Christmas, starting in mid-November.
That meant that the festivities, when they came, had a marked, almost explosive character. Christmas started on Christmas Eve and went on until Twelfth Night. Except now it doesn’t, because our fast and abstinence has already started halfway through. Sated with a month of pre-Christmas partying, we celebrate three days of Christmas, and on New Year’s Day we go on a diet, bang in the middle of what traditionally used to be the twelve days of Christmas.
Halloween is now the second biggest commercial season of the year. And it, too, is being anticipated; it begins to happen a month before its date — not just the arriviste-killer clowns, but chocolates, books, costumes,-horror films, parties. The effect of all this is to diffuse our sense of the here and now. If we are anticipating the next season, we’re not doing justice to the one we’re in. What we need is seasonality all year round.
So hold firm. Say no to horror costumes any time before 31 October. Get your nuts and apples and pumpkins ready for-Halloween night, not before. It’s time to reclaim the here and now.