Thursday 17 October 2019

Halloween traditions have changed - regrettably

Messers: these days, kids don't have the freedom to be stupid, even if only for one night
Messers: these days, kids don't have the freedom to be stupid, even if only for one night
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

For many of us growing up in the 1980s, Halloween was, as they say, a more innocent time.

Except it wasn't.

Yes, we did things like bobbing for apples, or eating colcannon, which was mashed potato, cabbage and onions with some coins hidden amongst the vegetables.

I remain convinced this was not an ancient Celtic tradition, as was claimed, but actually a cunningly fiendish ruse by Ireland's dentists to make sure they had a busy November fixing the broken teeth of half the kids in the country - damn you, Big Dentistry!

There were quaint traditions like those plastic masks which bit into your face before the elastic snapped, and walking from house to house saying 'help the Halloween party' in return for some fruit and the occasional bar of chocolate.

Of course, 'help the Halloween party' has now been replaced by the loathsome 'trick or treat' - an entirely American creation which, I suppose, provides a certain symmetry. After all, we exported Halloween to North America, and they returned the favour by reverse-colonising our own traditions.

But while those aspects of Halloween may not be as prevalent as they once were, there are also certain other slightly less innocent pastimes which we seem to have lost.

From the first week in October, the search was on for every bit of flammable material kids could find.

The bonfire hunt saw roving bands of urchins robbing palates of wood from the back of shops, and stockpiling every spare tyre they could find before stacking them at a ludicrously precarious angle and then torching it all on the big night.

That was, obviously, perilous enough in itself. But just to add to the potential danger, there was always one aspiring eejit who would place some empty aerosol cans in the pyre before it was lit - guaranteeing the lovely spectacle of the bonfire turning into a conflagration of exploding deodorant cans filling the air with bits of shrapnel.

Yes, it's all fun and games until someone loses an eye - which as we usually learned on Halloween night wasn't an empty cliché, but a very real threat to anyone who ventured too close to the flames.

Similarly, the bangers we used tended to fall into two categories - the packets of 10 for a pound which would sizzle for a few seconds before fizzling out with a disappointing 'pffft' or the other ones, the French bangers, which were basically small industrial explosives.

And yes, a guy I knew did lose part of a finger as we played chicken with a 'Frenchie' and dared each other to hold onto it for as long possible, so the warnings about bangers weren't an urban legend, either.

Looking back on my own childhood experiences of Halloween I'm often struck by one thing - it's not nostalgia. It's not a sort of wistful reminiscing about more innocent times when a 10 pence coin in a piece of cabbage was somehow considered a treat.

No, what strikes me is, in fact, this - children are the most stupid creatures on earth.

I mean, they're truly, strikingly, dumb.

The lad who blew the tip of his finger off? A complete thick.

The boy who timed him as he held the dangerously unstable IED in his hand? An absolute dope.

I say that with an unusual degree of certainty, because I was the fool who lit the banger and counted him down.

Kids are also extremely disloyal creatures - when Patrick's hand exploded in a still memorable puff of smoke and blood and a fingertip flew through the air, we all just scarpered and it was left to a grown-up to find out what all the screaming was about and bring him to hospital.

Kids, and young boys in particular, will always, always find some new and previously incomprehensible way to do extreme damage to themselves and those around them.

Then again, it was also an undeniably efficient way of learning a lesson - I doubt any kid who saw part of Patrick's finger evaporate ever forgot the sight. I know he didn't.

Well, I'm guessing he never forgot because none of us ever spoke to him again. He ratted us all out while he was crying in the neighbour's car on the way to Crumlin hospital. In the Darwinian world of 10-year-old boys, there is no excuse for ratting someone out. Even if you've just gone down to nine-and-a-half fingers.

Now it appears that everything available to kids comes with an adult carefully supervising fun and frolics and even the bonfires have to have safety officers - I often imagine the now grown-up Patrick would be the perfect choice for that role, actually - while individual bangers are frowned upon in favour of 'fireworks displays'.

As self-destructive, reckless and dangerous as those activities were back in the day, there seems to be something rather vital missing from the carefully structured activities of today - the freedom to allow kids to be stupid, even if only for one night of the year.

Yes, I know everyone is so much more aware of health and safety than even the adults were back then, and all in all, you'd have to admit that's a positive development.

But kids need space away from the disapproving gaze of grown-ups and their fusty obsessions with not blowing your hand off.

Apart from anything else, you can't learn about life if your parents or a teacher or some other designated killjoy is there to stop you from taking risks.

Having said that, if I had kids, would I allow them to do the things we got up to so routinely and enjoyed so much?

No way. Are you mad?

I mean, did I ever tell you about the time one of my mates blew his finger off...

Indo Review

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss