Halloween 1963

Halloween 1963 HALLOWEEN Growing up in a small town in the far North of England we didn’t have trick or treat. We only saw that on television when they showed films such as ‘Meet Me in St Louis’, or American shows like ‘Bewitched’, or one about a boy who always got into scrapes… I think called ‘Dennis the Menace’… or something like that. We did celebrate Halloween though, in our own way and it was always slightly linked to Guy Fawkes night, because we did something similar for that and the two events were less than a week apart. On Halloween, in school we made witches flying on broomsticks, cut from stiff black paper and decorated with wool for hair. I loved doing that and was in my element. The teacher would stick them to the windows where they made silouettes against the light. At home, my mother would get out the big tin baby-bath and fill it with ice-cold water. She’d float apples in it so we had to take turns of dunking our faces in to try to take a bite. It was not as easy as it sounded. The apples always bobbed down with you and your teeth wouldn’t manage to get a grip. My brother Michael, five years older (and with a bigger mouth) was the only one who was very successful. There’d also be apples hung up on strings but that was just as hard to manage. You had your hands behind your back to make sure you didn’t cheat, and the apples rolled left and right across your face every time you thought you might just about manage it.

Pomegranates would make their brief yearly appearances in the shops so if we were lucky there’d be one cut open to share, each of us stabbing seeds out one by one with a pin. I still feel lucky every year now when I have a whole one to myself.

Another thing we only saw on American TV was the pumpkin. I don’t think I ever saw an actual one until I was about 35. We carved out a turnip or swede, which in our small town we called a baygee. Three miles away the word was snanny. North and over the border into Scotland the word was neep. After spending hours hollowing one out with a potato peeler (they were very tough, hard things when raw), we’d get to the fun part, poking and cutting holes through to make a creepy face. You had to remember to make a hole in the lid to let smoke out. It would contain a lit candle for our trip round the dark streets. String threaded through two holes made a handle to carry it by.

A group of three or four of us would make our way in the dark, knocking on people’s doors and saying “Penny for halloween!” At most doors there’d be no reply at all, many people would put all their lights out and go into back rooms to pretend they were out. We were always dismayed by how many other little groups of children were doing the same, and understood that by the time we got to a house even those householders who didn’t mind too much were finding it a chore -or were spent out. Nobody ever gave us sweets, and we’d have thought it was odd if they did. What we got were pennies or ha’pennies, or occasionally a thruppence which we were told to share.

I think the householders must have got very sick of it because no sooner had that died down but November started and we were on the penny trail again hoping to make enough money to help buy fireworks for Guy Fawkes Night on the 5th. This time, you didn’t trail around with a baygee. No, you had to have a figure of Guy Fawkes. Ideally he should be dressed in historical costume, and I always wanted them to be but they never were. They were just old clothes filled with straw like a scarecrow, and with some sort of home-made mask. These figures were to be thrown on bonfires on November 5th, to show contempt for the real man’s attempt to blow up the King and Parliament on that date.

One year as we gathered under the lamp post in our dark street we realised we hadn’t anything to make a Guy with. You couldn’t turn up at doors without one. We’d tried that before and when we ritually said the words “Penny for the Guy?” we were met with “Where’s your Guy then?” and sent away empty-handed. So one of the older kids said that one of us would have to be the Guy. I was by far the smallest and easiest to carry. She drew a face on the back of the hood of her large duffle coat, (and when I saw what a poor job she was making of it I’d tried to say I should do it but she wasn’t having any of that) which was then put on me back to front. They carried me like that to quite a few houses. I could see nothing because of course my head was the wrong way in the hood. At one house, a man came to the door and he was very tetchy. He shouted at the little group saying he was sick of being pestered. I could feel the tension of my friends, and they said sorry but stood for a moment unsure if there was still a chance he might hand over a penny. “Clear off!” he suddenly yelled. In a moment I was dumped down on the concrete path and they all ran like heck. I heard their steps, and the latch of the gate clicking back into place after they burst through it. I didn’t know what to do. I was after all, just a Guy made of straw-filled old clothes. At the other houses no-one so far had suspected otherwise.

I could tell the man still silently stood there. I could tell that he stood looking down at me. I pictured the chalk face looking back up at him. Oh! Please just go back in the house… But no. He didn’t move. I could only hear my own short panicked breaths as they filled the hood with condensation, and the beating of my heart which I felt was about to burst through my chest. Suddenly I could take no more. I scrambled to my feet and stumbled, arms outstretched towards the gate, fumbling with the catch and all the time feeling the man’s incredulous eyes on my back. Through the gate I ran and ran only turning briefly at the corner of the street to see him still standing in the dim shaft of light coming from his hallway. Every November since I have thought of the man, and wondered what he must have thought when the Guy ditched on his path suddenly came to life in front of him. I hope it at least gave him a good laugh and a story to tell his neighbours… Somehow though, I don’t think he seemed to be the laughing kind.


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