Punky Night is upon us again and the Spriggans of West Penwith, the Black Dogs of various hapless Westcountry parishes, the wicked vicars of Luxulyan and elsewhere, the mad bad squires of Devon, the Whisht Hounds of Exmoor and Dartmoor, phantom doves of West Somerset and other sundry pariahs, phantoms and ghosts will be stirring in their graves or wherever else they hang out for most of the year.
Punky Night is Somerset-speak for Halloween – a punky being naught but a hollowed out mangel-wurzel carved into a face and lit from within.
When I was growing up in the shadows of the Quantock Hills, we didn't go in for Halloween much. I can't recall any of the village kids embarking on the trick-or-treat rigmarole they do today. Perhaps it was because we were a more puritanical lot back then – non-conformist Christianity still held much of the rural Westcountry in its iron and wrathful grip.
Nowadays just about every child in the region seems to venture forth on the night of October 31st, and the whole thing is regarded as a kind of massive, compulsory, party.
Goodness knows what famous Westcountry supernatural beings like the Spriggans or wraiths like Whisht Hounds, wicked vicars, mad bad squires and infamously spooky doves would think. Why bother chasing hapless folk to their death on the high moors and other remote places if the so-called victims regard the whole thing as a jolly nocturnal jape?
We Somerset kids half a century ago would have been far too afeared of the phantom-filled dark to go marching about banging on people's doors. We'd tentatively hollow-out the odd mangel-wurzel in time honoured fashion to form a spooky face flickering in the glow of an interior candle – which we'd then mount in our rain-lashed gardens before locking the door behind us. Only the posher families, by the way, had pumpkins back in those days.
But, for the most part, Halloween was a low-key occasion. It wasn't always like that here in the Westcountry, of course. After all, we invented the event...
More than 2,000 years ago the Celtic folk who haunted these parts celebrated their New Year around the end of October, beginning of November. Quite sensible when you think about it, as the occasion marked – still marks – the end of summer and the beginning of winter. They called the festival Samhain, and for them it was a time associated with human death.
The Celts believed that on the night before their New Year, the border between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. They thought that ghosts returned to earth on the night of October 31st and went around the place causing trouble and damaging crops.
They also believed that the spirits made it easier for the Druid priests to make predictions about the future. It's thought the Westcountry locals would light huge sacred bonfires, where people gathered to burn animal sacrifices to the Celtic deities. During these celebrations, weird and wonderful costumes would be worn – you know the sort of thing – animal heads, skins, antlers... And, so dressed, the priests would go about telling fortunes.
You might think all this would have died its own death once the Romans had conquered the western parts of Britain. In fact, they combined it with two festivals of their own. The first was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was a festival to honour Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. Her symbol was the apple, and the incorporation of this celebration into Samhain might explain the tradition of "bobbing" for apples that is practised today on Halloween.
The apple was always the most important of all fruits connected with the spooky ceremony. It was thought to be a sort of a link between men and gods, and Westcountry folk apparently went as far as to believe in a sort of 'apple-land' – called Avalon – where they thought the gods lived.
The Allan apples of Cornwall were supposed to bring good luck. All you had to do was eat one. I, alas, have never heard of this variety but would be most interested to hear from anyone who has.
In Devon and Somerset people believed that apples could reveal the identity of their future love. Method: comb your hair at midnight while eating an apple in front of a mirror – look up and there will be your future lover's visage peering down at you in the reflection. This was more likely to meet with success after having imbibed freely of that well known Westcountry by-product of the apple – cider...
When Christianity came along it, of course, scorned the pagan rituals. But the popes of old were not daft – they knew they had to keep the natives friendly with some sort of knees-up to replace earlier high times. In the seventh century, Pope Boniface IV designated November 1st All Saints' Day. The celebration was also called All-hallows or (from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints' Day) and the night before it, the night of Samhain, began to be called All-hallows Eve – eventually, Halloween.
Later, sometime around 1000 AD, the church made November 2nd All Souls' Day, when believers could honour the dead – just like old times. Together, the three celebrations, the eve of All Saints', All Saints', and All Souls', were called Hallowmass.
As late as the last century the belief lingered on in several Westcountry parishes that the local church was a place best avoided during the darkest of all dark nights. There seemed to have been two separate ideas behind the fear – one legend had it that the Devil himself would take to the pulpit and reel off a list of evil-doers in the parish – mortals he regarded as being his own property. The other belief centred on the idea that you could risk seeing your own future if you entered the church then turned to gaze out through the porch.
The American tradition of "trick-or-treating" probably dates back to the early All Souls' Day parades in England. During the festivities, the poor would beg for food and would be given pastries called "soul cakes" in return for a promise to pray for the donor's dead relatives. The practice was taken up enthusiastically by children who would go around the villages asking for food and money. Exactly why our trans-Atlantic cousins took to Halloween in such a big way is something of a mystery, but it obviously had something to do with the fact that so many early immigrants came from the western fringes of Europe, like the Westcountry. We had our Punky Night mangel-wurzels – the Irish had exactly the same carved root crop routine, but called it Jack O' Lantern.
Today Halloween is far bigger in the United States than it is in the land of its birth. It is estimated that Americans spend $2.5 billion annually on the event making it the country's second largest commercial holiday. They're welcome to it. Give me a hollow mangel-wurzel and a candle – and I'll raise a glass of cider to the dead or anyone else for that matter. The Americans can keep their gothic baubles and their Disney-esque ideas – we have the real thing over here – like the Whisht Hounds and the Spriggans to keep us company on the darkest nights if we really want to be scared.