What comes into your mind when you think of Samhain? No matter what pictures or memories you have, I can imagine none are quite like mine. Maybe I'm being naive, maybe Hallowe'en is the same around the world, or at least everywhere, where hoards of Irish emigrated. Here in Switzerland it's not like back home, it doesn't actually really exist, nobody takes much notice, except the Irish pubs scattered around the country ( but they're only using it as a commercial scam!), even my "family" of hallowed out pumpkins get rather strange looks.
Hallowe'en is one of those times of the year when I get homesick, when I yearn for those images etched into my mind, the memories of my childhood and my life before I went abroad. Back home Hallowe'en hasn't changed much over the past few hundreds of years, and the church never managed to stamp it out, it's still as magical as ever, and as popular as it was during the times of the Druids, and I miss it like hell. I don't arrange dozens of bowls of goodies on my dining room table, because nobody calls dressed up as a ghoul, so I only have a small feast for me and my children. I dress up an old wooden fork (that thing must be at least a hundred years old), normally in orange and black ribbons with dried corncobs and sunflowers tied to the prongs. At the foot of this, I place a few little pumpkins and sawdust. And all my window sills are decorated with similar items. I'm the only house ever decorated but I don't care.
I grew up in Dublin city, I'm a native Irish and the blood in my veins is green, I'm probably not your typical picture of an Irish cailín, a little too delicately built, but the temperament is there and the freckles. I went to France some years ago and met my husband there, and as he is Swiss, I then came to Switzerland. It's a beautiful country here, the people are a little strange, so serious and strict, but it's a country full of history and ghastly stories, but still it's not Dublin, I'm not saying I hate it here, I don't really, I just get home sick every now and then.
Growing up, Hallowe'en was one of the most favourite holidays among most of the children (and adults), it was eagerly awaited for many reasons. In Ireland there are two weeks holidays especially for the festival, or was it one? Anyhow, it's hard to pinpoint where the preparations began, for the under 15 years of age in anyway, the adults could actually do it all in the week before Hallowe'en, or so they said.
In the housing estate where I lived, the houses were built in squares, making a quadratic area for the children to play, and the children of one square rarely played with the children of another square, altogether, in our estate were about six of these squares. In our square, we started collecting wood for the bonfire around the end of July, or the beginning of August. Every square had it's own bonfire, so wood was a cause for fighting. Every tiny scrap of any flammable material was collected and stored away in a secret place, ours was under the basement of the "flats." The flats were cheap apartment blocks with unused basements, where only the rats dared to go, and us of course, making it the safest place for our treasure. Evenings where spent walking around the housing estates, even the ones further away, risking fights with rival gangs, to find wood for our bonfire. It was really well organised by the older children and teenagers, they sent out "squads," and told them were to look. So from August until the end of October, the city was filled with little squads of children walking around, trying their best to look innocent, and searching for wood in the area they were told to check out.
Our Fire had to be bigger than all the rest, especially than the "Kalls." They were on the field next to us and every year it was a big thing to see which gang had the biggest fire. It was like being patriotic: generations of "Squares" had competed against one another to be the pride of the estate, the square with the biggest bonfire. The Kalls had one advantage over us—"Caesar." He was a bull with no front teeth, the stories of how he lost his teeth were famous, the one that stuck in my head was something about him biting his owner, and his owner who was on crutches at that time, hit him in the mouth with a crutch. I never found out if was true, most probably not, most probably they were removed to avoid him ever biting a child and being put down. But anyway, they were the biggest threat to our bonfire, The Kalls.
After months of collecting firewood, the day finally comes, we're all on holidays and everyone got up early and waited at the kitchen window for the first of the older boys to come out. We started at about ten o' clock in the morning bringing the wood out of our hiding places and arranging it in the middle of the square, we looked in awe as it lay there in all it's glory, the result of many months worry and struggle, even the small children had been collecting and gleefully placed their little bundles at the side of the pile, the older children where always so proud of the little ones. Some of the wood had always been found by others and stolen, and the risk of last minute raids were fairly high, so older boys escorted the girls to secret places to obtain the hidden treasure, and many more prowled around making sure nobody was spying on us, this was a great moment and no-one was going to ruin it. I remember one year we had a particularly bad time with the Kalls, they had stolen a lot of our wood, we looked upon the smaller than usual pile in the square, some of us ready to cry, some of us just plain angry,and all of us disappointed. They had raided one of our hideouts just a few nights before, and some of the boys still had bruised eyes.
At about three o' clock in the afternoon, after we had finished piling the wood, my dad came out of his garage grinning like a Cheshire cat. He made a comment on how small the bonfire would be and laughed as the boys went into a frenzy recalling the struggle only nights before, of course exaggerating about how many Kalls had actually participated in the raid, and then they fell quiet, because just then we caught site of something behind my dad on the ground...
My dear dad who kept every tiny scrap of wood ever to fall into his hands, all neatly stored on top of the rafters in his almost house like garage (which he had built himself mind you!), had felt sorry for us and decided to donate us some of his precious wood. We could have cried for joy, we had eyed this lot up for years and never got so much as a match stick, and now we were being handed it for the best use ever imagined for wood—our Hallowe'en Bonfire. I was so proud in that moment, I nearly cried I was so proud, that was my Dad who had saved us the humility of a less than the size of a garden shed bonfire. I couldn't wait to see the look on the faces of those Kalls, to see all their jaws drop, because they were expecting an easy victory, and weren't going to get it.
It was late before we had finished hauling sheets of chipboard and timber from my dad's garage, and some of the boys had already started bringing wood up to our traditional fire place, some of the boys stayed chatting to my dad, thanking him over and over, until he finally reminded them of the time, time to get the fire ready. Every year it was placed in the exact same place, and throughout the whole year the five meter in diameter charred circle was to be seen. Carefully the wood would be piled up, only experienced children where allowed to help, and now there were parents around to supervise and also to make sure no thieves would pop up anywhere. Standing around the site like soldiers, they too were proud of this moment, it was, after all, their children who had spent months making sure this would be possible.
At last it was ready, the smaller children were already dressed up and doing their rounds under the escort of older siblings. Darkness was nearing and one of the fathers stood ready with a can of petrol. I normally had to go home around now for dinner, as with a lot of the kids, but about ten people stood watch over the fire. And funny enough, I guess it was always at this time the mascot was placed at the top of the fire, I never actually witnessed this, and I always wondered how they got it up there! Every year without fail, a large stuffed animal was found somewhere and was adopted as mascot, it was never a really important thing, but where else were we to put a great big stuffed animal? So each year it landed on the peek.
For dinner we always got Witches dinner, also called Call-cannon or curly kail, I loved it, it was made of mashed potato with chopped raw onions and kail (frizzy or curly cabbage), there were always coins hidden in it, and we shovelled it down in the hope of finding them. Then my mother arranged the large bowls of fruit and sweets and Bairm Breac on the table, these were for the children who knocked on the door dressed up, and my mam loved the kids, she would ask them all silly questions, and she was always very generous with what she gave, she then reminded them that Mrs. Broe had made little bags of goodies so they better hurry before they're all gone. The idea was that the kids frightened whoever opened the door, but I loved Hallowe'en and always got in the mood of the evening, normally this meant keeping watch out the window so I could frighten whoever knocked, one favourite was opening the door so they couldn't see me while they were still coming down the path, I would then jump out dressed up as some horrific being, but they loved it! The Breac was a traditional cake with a ring hidden in it, this ring was also the only reason why a child would ever touch this fruit loaf served with a thick coat of butter, and although back then I also only ate until the ring was found, I now years on, bake tons of these cakes at Hallowe'en, I eat most myself, but a few are given to close friends, I guess this is one of those foods that grow on you over the years.
It's dark now and the smaller children will be going to bed soon, as I make my way back up to the fire amid the scurry of tiny ghouls and witches, a wonderful feeling always comes over me at this time, after months of hard work the time had come to set it all ablaze. This great ceremony was always done by a parent, and I guess he or she was always honoured to do it (no need to say this was also the start of many an argument). Petrol was poured over the wood and slowly a single match was held up to it, the crowd gave great cheers, bottles of beer popped and the odd illegal banger went off, and now for most started the fun part.
After the smaller children went home, and most mothers—yea, someone has to open the door to all those ghouls!—the older children gathered around to listen to some teenager tell tales of ghostly encounters, I must admit, I've also told the odd tale on this night! Stories were told and bravery was tried, it was said, and still is, that whoever walks counter clockwise around the bonfire six times, would see the devil. I never tried it myself, I didn't fancy seeing old Nick himself, then again I can't remember anybody trying it, although the odd boy boasted that he did it the year before and had told the devil he was a stupid looking so and so.. but if taunted to prove he wasn't scared...
If you walked around the Dublin suburbs now, you could see thousands of fires, big as houses, literally. I only ever once drove around Dublin on this night, with a friend of mine, he was seventeen, so was I. But I can still see it clearly, it was beautiful, the whole city was ablaze, hundreds and thousands of ghastly figures, walked the street, some playing pranks on friends, and others on their way to a fancy dress ball. All who were wearing a costume got into every disco free of charge tonight, and all who were not wearing a costume were not looked upon with a friendly manner, and the best costume always got a prize. And we drove around silently, watching the best loved celtic holiday in all it's glory.
It's summer now, every year I think about going home for Hallowe'en, but every year I end up staying in Switzerland, baking tons of Breac, and cooking Witches dinner. Pity really, it's always because of some little thing that pops up out of nowhere, like a last minute business trip for my husband. Well at least I'll be spending it with other witches, even if our fire is not big as a house, and even if it's the only one in the whole country at the time, my memories still make it a special night for me, and it comforts me to know that not too far away, at this very moment, thousands of fires, big as houses, are burning brightly, in a country where you don't have to be pagan to take part in this wonderful festival, and I will be there in my mind, beside the fire, throwing nuts into it, nuts that Mrs. O'Brien had, as always, given me, listening to the stories and singing with friends. And one of these days I'll tell my husbands boss to "Sod off, we're going to Dublin next week, so my hubby can't pop down to Geneva, mate!"