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False face on, turnip carved and apples to ‘bob’ for: Hallowe’ens past very special time

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It’s Hallowe’en and it’s always been a time of fun and frivolity. After all, who doesn’t love a good scare?

But the Hallowe’en of today – the Amercanised version of the holiday complete with trick or treating and pumpkins aplenty – is a far cry from those many will call to mind.

Such traditions have seeped steadily across the Atlantic and now dictate how we too celebrate on October 31.

For those of a certain age (you know who you are!), the Hallowe’ens of the 1970s and 80s were a much different affair in these parts.

Today, we watch the excitement on the faces of our grandchildren, as they enjoy everything the promise of Hallowe’en brings. And they should enjoy it too. It is, after all, a bit of fun. Right?

Those of us now in our late 40s, 50s and beyond can remember a very different time, but we enjoyed it too.

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Remember that our Hallowe’en celebrations were led by parents who still had the old ‘make do and mend’ advice of the Second World War to the forefront of their minds.

But it worked for them and, you know what? It worked for us too.

There are many happy memories to cling to from a different time; enjoyment and excitement did not necessarily mean extravagance and expense.

The children of the 70s and 80s were content. We had to be.

We had our own ways of doing things, ways which would be frowned upon today, looked upon as not good enough, not meeting the right standards expected of a child of the 21st Century.

How many parents have run the gauntlet, the tears and the tantrums, when it comes to costumes? It just has to be ‘all that’; nothing less will do. There is an unhealthy competition, a materialistic desire to be better, to have more, to compare and find others wanting and, in doing so, to make them feel like a lesser person.

Cast yourself back now to simpler times and recall how, as the saying goes, we may not have had much but we did have fun.

The end of the long summer holidays, the shortening of the days, were perhaps more noticeble to generations then, who spent more time outside than inside, playing with friends, morning to night, having to be called home in time for tea, bath and bed, before a search party was despatched to find you – and woe betide if that ever happened!

There were no mobile phones, internet, games consoles – certainly nothing that could be carried outside and function beyond plugging into the TV, batting a tiny pixelated ball back and forth across the screen. And speaking of TV, three channels. No digital, satallite, no streaming.

Deprived? No. Content? Definitely.

Because, as said, the fun was in the occasion, the friends, the family, the moment.

The countdown to Hallowe’en began weeks in advance, when the leaves began to turn magnificent shades of browns, beige and orange, much like the wallpaper in our homes.

There was a tangible feeling of anticipation and children never felt the cold.

One of the most enjoyable aspects was choosing your ‘false face’. Every shop had them. But while plentiful to purchase they were limited in look. Not like the prosthetic-like attachments and CGI-inspired creations of today. Oh no. You could basically be a witch, a skeleton, a pirate or a ghost. Simples!

And the craftsmanship of these masks was not going to win any design awards. Plastic, one-dimensional and prone to falling apart. Quite like the reality TV stars of today!

The little tag at the top – which allowed the shopkeeper to hang them and display them proudly to covetous children – had to be cut off, leaving a sharp ridge you were likely to lose a finger on. Attached to the face via a simple bit of elastic and pulled over the head, what child can forget the pain of having a parent try to remove your mask when it got tangled in your hair?

Anyways, I digress… So false face sorted, it’s time to accessorise. What of the remainder of the costume? Again, imagination had left the scene of the crime and whatever was to hand would suffice. After a root around the airing cupboard, some old bed sheets came in useful, all that was needed to clothe and send forth an army of little ghosts to run wild round Armagh’s estates. A pillow case – with eyes cut out and mouth drawn on – brought an air of (misguided) realism. The ambitious went so far as to fashion a bit of card, felt tip it black and make a witch’s hat. Mask slapped on, wrapped in a black binbag or old curtain or coat, all that was needed was mum’s good yardbrush as a convincing broom to complete the evil ensemble.

Dressed to impress and with a look to spook, sure the fun was only starting.

Time for the pumpkin. Strike that! Pumpkin? What’s a pumpkin? These big shiny orange things we’d only ever seen on TV (one of those three channels I mentioned) or, as the 80s arrived, on video cassettes, which we knew we should not have been watching but did.

Still, not to be outdone by our American cousins, it’s back to the ‘make do’ drawing board.

Turnip anyone? In true Blue Peter fashion, it was always advisable to have an adult to hand to do the actual graft. I have to say I overheard and picked up words frowned upon in polite society today while watching my Da try to gouge out lumps of fleshy orange turnip as he tried to hollow it out. These words became more frequently and inventively used when attempting to cut out a scary face and having to make the eyes and mouth larger and larger each time a piece was accidentally whopped away, until the words ‘that’ll have to do’ were heard. A candle was secured inside – with effort – and the lid put back on top, as your Ma scraped the turnip from round the bench and dumped it in a pot, sharing a knowing smile of what was coming for tea.

So turnip ‘lantern’ made, what next? Well, while a masterpiece it most certainly was not, the next stage was to display it and learn to live with the shame. It was short-lived, as it soon dawned that, like your own, none of your friends’ parents were adept at this try at turnip topiary too.

The words ‘don’t try this at home’ were made for this generation but often ignored. It was a time when health and safety messages were heard but went unheeded. Why do you think there were so many public information films telling us of the dangers all around?

Who in their right mind would light a candle in a turnip, place it in their window and draw the curtains? Fire hazard? Certainly. But then again, with all that asbestos in the roof space we knew that we’d be safe!

Depending on what your plans were the rest of your Hallowe’en could take various forms.

Some estates would build bonfires, ruddy-faced kids collecting round the doors for weeks in advance of the planned inferno. ‘Any old newspapers or rubbish?,’ was commonplace to be heard, boxes carted off by hand or, for the heavier items, placed on a ‘gider’ and hauled with relative ease to the bonfire base.

The tradition of the Hallowe’en bonfire was enjoyed by all. And there was no ‘if it’s shorter than the Shard then it’s sh*t’ mentality; it was one of those times, working together, when children of all ages gathered, with a common goal, to build that bonfire. It was a time to bond, to form friendships, to grow.

Hallowe’en was also a time for nibbles and nuts. Did anyone actually like monkey nuts? All that shelling for little reward.

The home-made apple tart or crumble on the other hand was an entirely different matter but, once again, it did not come risk-free. For hidden within the crusty deliciousness of it all could be found coins – anything from a penny to tenpence – wrapped in either tin foil or greaseproof paper. I don’t know what was more fun – digging through your own pudding with a spoon like a demented archaeologist or watching to see what others would find. That tell-tale glimpse of silver foil could bring great excitement, but obviously the coins – administered with parental discretion – had to be evenly distributed to avoid sibling squabbles in the event of one ending up with more than the others or, heavens forbid, someone finding none at all. Such an undesired outcome could cause all manner of teasing, with an older brother channeling his inner Jim Bowen, quite content to brandish his treasures and tell you ‘here’s what you could have won’!

There was so much to savour at this time of year. Too much to mention.

What of the other games and pastimes?

Bobbing for apples? Sparklers?

Children were subjected to a range of cruelties, akin to the Salem witch trials, in the name of fun. If you didn’t suffer third degree burns or have a near-drowning experience then was it really Hallowe’en after all?

A basin was filled with water and apples set floating in it, the idea to grab one using only your mouth while your hands were behind your back. And there was always someone there to push your head right into the water in the name of jolly japes!

A just extinguished sparkler was, of course, the hottest thing known to mankind. It took ages to get the thing lit (memo to Da – it’s never going to work by holding a lit Embassy Regal to the end) and then it was over in no time.

Having waved it in the air and tried to write your own name in the trail of light it left behind, sparklers brought hours (strike that, moments) of pleasure. And when they went out to a sigh of disappointment, that was it.

Well, it was, until the indoor fireworks were brought out! These are, if ever there were, two words that do not belong in a sentence side by side. Indoor. And fireworks.

But as said earlier, we were made from sturdier stuff.

Down they came from the top cupboard where they’d been stashed for safe keeping until the grand unveiling. The display (an ill-deserved description if ever there was one) beckoned. So to the kitchen table where the box was removed and the contents inspected. What does the small black one do? What colour will the wooden red-topped stick – like an obese Swan Vesta – burn when lit?

With a warning to stand well back (why, I’ll never know), the ‘show’ (overselling again, I know) began. One after another each ‘firework’ was attended to, cardboard folded back and lit. And one by one they would fizz, crackle and die with a flatulent ‘whump’ in rather unspectacular fashion. Not even the little one that turned into a charcoal-like snake raised many gasps. The cat looked bored, the dog positively nonplussed. With the waft of sulphur and smoke heavy in the air, that was it. All done for another year, with all left being that earlier promise of turnip for tea…

Hallowe’en is a time for frightfully-good scares, but it is a time for fun and there was no shortage of that, despite how it might come across in my at times irreverent recollections.

I’m writing of times when our streets were witness to untold horrors of our own making. On a global scale, there were real fears of a nuclear war to end all wars.

And there were real monsters too, often presenting our favourite TV shows, we just did not know it then.

It is good to look back, it is good to remember. Nostalgia can be a panacea for the soul.

There can be satisfaction in simplicity, memories made to cherish, always.

Now, whatever you do, however you choose to spend it, make your Hallowe’en holidays – this year, next and beyond – special, filled with moments to look back on fondly, a time that your own children will turn to years from now and think now wasn’t that just the best?!

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