Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Samhain!

Happy Samhain! And what in the Sam hill is Samhain? Well, first of all, let's start with the pronunciation. I know "Sam hill" and "Samhain" sounded good to you until right about now, when I tell you that Samhain is pronounced SOW-en (rhymes with chowin'). Samhain is a pre-Christian Irish pagan holiday, and the source of a lot of our Halloween traditions.

Like the Day of the Dead, Samhain is considered the time during the year when our world and the world of magic, spirits, souls of the dead, and fairies are closest. A PhD candidate in Irish folklore explains to us that while people were cooking for the ancient festivities, they would send their children around to get supplies from neighbors (apparently, "May I borrow a cup of sugar?" has been around since even before there was sugar). But to protect them from any harmful spirits, they would hide the children's identities with masks and disguises. And voilĂ ! They're trick-or-treating.

Except that now it's not a cup of sugar, it's more like an enormous bag of individually wrapped blocks of sugar.

We thought only Americans really did Halloween, but showing up in Ireland at Halloween time turns out to be a happy stroke of luck. This country is fully decorated and crazy for the holiday. Our Halloween actually started two days early, at Bunratty, when the girls dress up with their new Irish friends (the daughters of my old Irish friend, Brendan). One thing we notice is that the children in Ireland tend to dress up with traditional scary/creepy costumes. We don't see one single princess, and the only foofy dresses are the torn ones on the bloody brides. At a place as Disney-picturesque as Bunratty, it's utterly refreshing not to have even a whiff of Disney princess (or Star Wars for that matter!).  Heading out from Brendan's farmhouse, where we're staying for the week, we have Ellen as a witch, Gigi as a gypsy, Pippa as a leopard, and Catherine, the black cat, who is far too adorable to bring anybody bad luck. 

By Halloween itself, Ellen and Catherine and family are back in Dublin. So left to our own devices, we find out from a group of teenagers where the trick-or-treating hotspots are in the town nearest to the farmhouse, which is Athenry, County Galway. We are now experts on where to get the goods in this town. The trick-or-treating looks a lot like what I knew growing up. The rules seem to be the same; if the house is decorated and/or lit up, it's fair game. Despite how lonely the scene looks in the photo on the left, the truth is that there are plenty of other children in costume and making the rounds, as you can see when several groups converge on this obviously-open-for-candy household.

Yes, prowling around the graveyard of the nearly 800 year old Athenry abbey ruins is spooky. And certainly the gypsy and leopard are scary....

But not as scary as several huge bags of candy and junk food. Among the candies, you will notice there are none of the American-style bite-sized Snickers I sneak out of my girls' bags each year, nor any of the Toffifees I was hoping would end up in a European trick-or-treat bag. Sigh. Doesn't look much like a North American trick-or-treat haul, does it?

But wait. It gets weirder. Yes, weirder than Banana Skids, Fizzy Pops, and Fruit Pastilles. Try looking through your kids' Halloween booty and finding snack bags of Worcester, Salt & Vinegar, and Smoky Bacon chips or, worse yet, Chickatees -- the chicken-flavored puffs.

Now that's scary!


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