The Season of the Witch

I love October.  I love the light that brings the colour of the autumn leaves into sharp focus and the darkness that begins earlier each evening and ends later each morning.  I think autumn is my favourite season and, every night, I feel genuine joy at the smell of woodsmoke rising from the houses in our village that greets me when I get off the train after commuting.

October, of course, is also the month of Hallowe’en, so what’s not to like?

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Growing up in the 1970s, Hallowe’en was not the commercial, Americanised festival it is today.  There were no lines of spooky bunting, witchy goblets or decorations for sale.  There were gaudy witch or Frankenstein monster masks for sale in Woolworths (a much missed American import!) and treacle scones for sale in Templeton’s.

There were monkey nuts and apples for dookin, but that’s all there was.  Or, all I can remember.  Or all that FineFare had to offer.  Remember FineFare?!  Perhaps, things became more exotic when the first ever Safeways opened, along the road, but I had more interesting things to do back then.

The highlight of Hallowe’en was the Herculean effort my Dad went to, carving out the almost impenetrable turnip lantern that would then sit, glowing on the sitting room window, the scent of burnt turnip wafting for days after the great event.  The blisters left on the hands of anyone who has attempted this is a real badge of honour.  To carve a tumshie was an old Scottish tradition, which, sadly, has been replaced by the great American pumpkin.  They’re easier to carve, after all.

Almost lost in some parts, but not quite totally, is the art of Guising.  Instead, the kids have adopted another US import, the more threatening Trick or Treat.  Perhaps not all that dissimilar after all, with dis-guised children going from house to house in a macabre version of first-footing, maybe all that’s different is the language.  The practice of Guising goes back many years in Scotland and Ireland, perhaps even to the 1500s.

It might sound like I have an anti-American thing going on, but that’s not the case.  It is, only, a small, nostalgic sadness that many customs and aspects of our culture and language have been replaced by cover-all expressions from elsewhere.  Even going the messages* for monkey nuts is a thing of the past.  And remind me to write about Glamour later.

(*Does anyone still say this instead of ‘going shopping’?)

It’s also true that, with the rise of an infinite number of Wiccan, other witch, pagan, nature and self-created beliefs and practices, many traditions or supposed traditions have appeared.  Or re-appeared, depending on your point of view.  In Edinburgh, in the 90s around the time that Buffy the Vampire Slayer was at peak power, there were around five Witchcraft shops in the city.  These have mostly gone, presumably moved on to other fads.  But some – perhaps the genuine ones – remain.  The invention, or reinvention, of Samhain is now marked by a free festival on a par with that of Beltane and Yule which are now celebrated in Edinburgh with music, procession and pagan heroes.

The popularity of The Boy Wizard currently in its ascendancy has seen at least four wizardy shops spring up recently – usually next door to the Christmas shops! And mostly painted in Gryffindor colours.  Cafes, tour companies and others, keen to capitalise on Edinburgh’s links to the Harry Potter saga, are enjoying their moment in the moonlight.  At least two cafes are held to be the ‘home’ of Harry Potter, where J.K.Rowling wrote.  And maybe they are.  The tourist dollar is important.

But, for me, the smell of the air, a walk in the woods, and the sight of smoke rising from a chimney, is the essence of Hallowe’en.  And one that can’t be spoiled by the power of money.  That, and a big bowl of lentil soup.

And the smell of singed turnip.

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