Supermarket witches and the Australian pumpkin boom


Jack-o'-lanternIt was with some equanimity that I entered the familiar automatically opening door of my local supermarket on 31 October, only to be shocked out of my complacence by coming face to face with three witches. They were wearing pointy black hats, black cloaks and black boots and their faces were marked with black cabbalistic signs.

Recovering quickly I said, 'So foul and fair a day I have not seen.'

The one who seemed to be the leader looked at me with withering disdain and was obviously on the verge of casting a spell to transform me into a frog. The other two giggled.

I considered offering them some eye of newt but thought better of it and left them to continue their traversing of the aisles, probably looking for broomsticks.

These occult manifestations were of course occasioned by the school girls' observance of Halloween or, as they probably would not call it, All Hallows Eve — the day before All Saints Day. It has a complex provenance in which Christian, pagan, Celtic and darker influences are mixed.

Religious and irreligious observances at Halloween were balanced by practical matters. In earlier days in the northern hemisphere 1 November was the beginning of winter, the 'dark' half of the year.

The general sense of one phase ending and a new one starting was often marked by bonfires and rituals. In England, bonfire night, loosely observed for centuries, became official after the Gunpowder Plot and the annual commemoration on 5 November of the foiling of Guy Fawkes and his cohorts.

In Australia the infrequently observed idea of a 'bonfire night' was given a rationale it couldn't otherwise have had in the southern hemisphere with the increasing popularity of the adopted Guy Fawkes night. This in turn has disappeared because of the risk of bushfires — and that brings us back to my supermarket on 31 October.

What significance can Halloween, the apparent replacement for Guy Fawkes, have for Australians about to embark on their hot summer?

It has become almost totally disjoined from its religious connections and the lineaments of the observance. Trick or treat, jack-o'-lanterns, sorcery, ghosts, vampires and other wanderers in the nether world are entirely imported from America, which imported them from Europe as recently as the 19th century.

In the BBC News Magazine this week, Tom de Castella worries whether Halloween is replacing the traditional and indigenous bonfire night. Halloween, he reports, 'is now viewed by many chains as the third biggest retail event of the year in the UK ... Tesco sold 28 different types of Halloween cakes this year and two million pumpkins'.

And there, of course, is the rub: there's money in it. Already in urban Australia, the production of pumpkins specifically for jack-o'-Lanterns is booming. They're inedible. You just carve them.

And while we haven't reached the stage that Castella notices — 'crowds of 20 and 30-somethings staggering through British city centres as zombies, vampires or in less ghoulish fancy dress' — my supermarket witches had their equivalents in cities and suburbs all over Australia observing a ritual that is entirely imposed, bears the magic and irresistible imprimatur of the US, and grows out of nothing in our own history, traditions or folk lore.

Does this matter, we might ask in our dour Orwellian way. Well, probably not much. Why shouldn't the young and some of their elders have some fun dressing up and scaring each other and anyone else in the vicinity right out of their togas, witches hats and other arcane drapery?

And yet, looked at another way, it does matter that we espouse rituals and observances that actually mean nothing more than another diversion, that pretend to a provenance which they don't actually have in our country, and which exist and flourish as phony ritual because someone's profiting from them.

The trouble is, when you ask 'what price tradition?' and question the commercially driven imposition of 'traditions' that are meaningless to us, youare labelled as a curmudgeon or dinosaur. A curmudgeon is 'a bad-tempered, difficult, cantankerous person', and we all know what happened to the small-brained dinosaurs.

Well, dang my britches, guess I'll go down this here aisle and git me a pumpkin and a broomstick. 

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place, The Temple Down the Road and Manning Clark — A Life

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, Halloween



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Existing comments

You are quite correct on all counts, Brian: Halloween is artificial, imposed and ex-US originally from Europe. Having said that the pertinent question may be "Why do we celebrate it in Australia?" The answers could be interesting. Guy Fawkes' Day was/is a rather sectarian celebration: something English (and Australian) Catholics steered well clear of. We are no longer polarised into a Protestant (Anglo-Saxon)/Catholic (Irish descended) society. In fact our demographics have radically changed. Perhaps we need celebrations which unite us across our various differences? Perhaps they have not grown up naturally yet but will take time.

Edward F | 09 November 2012  

Recent move to a new home and in the letter box an invitation to join in the Crescents Trick or Treat Set up a table and lace cloth with two chairs out the front, opened a red and waited for the trick or treaters with a huge bottle of lollies Scattered glow in the dark halloween like pieces of plastic on the driveway for effect. Neighbours came over and helped us finish the red, kids and parents came and demolished the sweets staying to welcome us to the area and I decided philosophically that the end justified the means Whatever the motivation we had created community in the simple act of participating

GAJ | 09 November 2012  

Seeing witches in a supermarket during Holloween can't be as 'scary' as seeing a St George Bank employee dressed in a giant green dragon costume at the entrance of a St George bank, trying his very best to make passing mothers and very small children laugh.

Myra | 09 November 2012  

Thanks Brian! Relished this piece, it was a great way to start the working day. I trust you'll be fully kitted out for haunting your local supermarket in Halloween 2013. A few trick or treaters were out and about in our 'burb. Something of a concern for us was that the infrequent roaming packs of younger kids (of primary school age, I'd estimate years three-five) were bogeying away without parental supervision. As a safety issue I would have thought we knew better as a society these days.

Barry G | 09 November 2012  

I think that Gaj's comment is close to the mark. For the past few years my daughter and her children have participated in "trick or treating" with other young families in their immediate neighbourhood. They say that what they enjoy the most is the sense of community that is experienced.

Joan | 09 November 2012  

Quite so, the invasion of American claptrap is revolting. But hang on a moment! It's not as if Christmas and Easter are genuine 'original' celebrations either, is it? Both pinched from previous 'owners' of the events, and now presented as truth, when in fact they are now reduced to painful 'retail experiences' every bit as bad as Halloween. For a really good Guy Fawkes event, go to Lewes in England, where Bonfire Committees abound and effigies of the Pope get burned in commemoration of the murder of local Protestants years ago by a Catholic monarch. Perhaps Australia should reinvent 5 Nov and hold it on 11 Nov instead, with bonfires complete with GG effigies?

janice wallace | 09 November 2012  

Guy Fawkes Night vanished as a popular pastime in Australia sometime in the sixties. It was a memory act for the majority English descendants whose parents had played out the day of infamy with their games and rituals. I remember the full range of fireworks being brought out for the 5th November: penny bungers, tom thumbs, Catherine wheels, rockets. The word terrorist did not have the common use we find today, but Guy Fawkes was meant to remind people of what would happen if religious terrorists were ever allowed to rule by force. This was all a memorial of acts centuries old, a threat to civil monarchy. But of course the anti-Catholic sentiment that went with it was always drifting around the edges of the conversation. Fear of bushfires may be one reason for its disappearance, though I thought the ban on fireworks was possibly as significant. Nowadays the only thing you can buy in the shops are party sparklers. Halloween has become a children’s fantasy evening. My main concern, as witness to Halloween this year in Melbourne, is how the children all expect treats but are not adept or ready for tricks. This seems symptomatic of our unimaginative consumer culture. They dress up well, they’re certainly good at spooky. It is entirely secular, of course. Just as less people today grasp that Mardi Gras is actually preparation for the much more important day that follows. They go together in fact, so with All Saints’. No one has come up with a day that actively celebrates the great and good and holy and unseen people in our society, the reminder of how our society ultimately works and the only way it can work really, in the final analysis: the communion of saints. Halloween is only the start of the reality, not its fulfilment. Even it’s reminders of mortality are overwhelmed by the main purpose of all secular feats, which is to celebrate. Celebration of what, in particular, is not clear, other than finding clever ways of extracting from total strangers something sweet, for nothing.

PHILIP HARVEY | 09 November 2012  

If I ever open my door to a group of kids chanting 'Trick or treat' I'll say 'I'll have a treat thanks.'

Gavan | 09 November 2012  

My son and daughter both attend private Catholic schools. One year, my daughter's class were given permission to have a Halloween party at lunchtime. However this permission was revoked when the higher school authorities got wind of it. So no party. Apparently pagan celebrations are frowned upon in a Catholic school. At my son's school, the younger kids were allowed to have some dress-up fun, and a short article in the school newsletter provided interesting and informative detail linking the origins of Halloween with All Hallows and All Saints (as in the article above). A far more balanced approach.

Mum of 2 | 09 November 2012  

Well maybe you have to opt for witches and goblins etc if you have nothing better to believe in. Perhaps it is a sign of our very new age society that adults and children are more inclined to believe in Harry Potter (not that he's a bad bloke)Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny than in Jesus and the Saints and Angels.

Bernadette | 09 November 2012  

Perhaps we can catch a glimpse of what Halloween, or something like it, might one day mean in its tenuous link with religion and the spirituality of same. That link is almost broken but a poignant reminder of the great spiritual vacuum in our society: a vacuum which cannot be filled with surface adherence or pseudo-celebration. Something else needs to happen. I suspect this something, if it happens, will do so at a much deeper level beyond our conscious control. We, as a society, need real roots. I am not sure we have them.

Edward F | 10 November 2012  

Hallowwen ain't for us. Our Pumpkins are not overipe in this Season. it is not harvest time. They are too hard to carve.

Rose Drake | 10 November 2012  

When I was growing up, Guy Fawkes night wasn't referred to as anything but "Cracker night". And it will have been terrifying for animals everywhere within coo-ee of the noise and smoke; a good reason for banning it, even before worrying about bushfires. Much as I dislike artificial commercially-driven US cultural imports, as far as I know, Hallowe'en doesn't disturb or traumatise animals.......only occasional humans.

smk | 11 November 2012  

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