You know that the nadir of Hallowe’en merchandise has been reached when Mr Kipling does Toffee Terror Whirls (scrumptiously spooky!) and Nestlé does Spooky Shreddies. There seems to be no limit to the horrible confectionary you can flog on the basis that it’s got a skull on the packet or pumpkin-coloured foil.
We are now in the thick of what you might call “the bonfire season”, which runs from mid-October to the weekend after Guy Fawkes Night. It’s part of the contemporary reworking of the calendar: a new, secular take on the year. It’s a kind of autumn festival of skeleton sweeties, fireworks and scary films.
I grew up with Hallowe’en in Ireland. At the end of October, before the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, clusters of us would head off in our parents’ old clothes, with masks, or, for the retro, faces covered with soot, to ask the neighbours for “a penny for the bobbin’” – and we’d receive nuts, apples or money. You ate barmbrack, a fruit loaf with a ring inside, and whoever got it would be the first to marry.
Irish Americans had already Americanised Hallowe’en as a merchandising opportunity: a proms night with ghouls and ghoul-themed confectionary. In the 1990s, something curious happened. Brits and indeed the Irish took on what the Americans were doing. In Britain, it merged with the old Guy Fawkes Night.
It’s part of an interesting development, the secular-commercial hijack of the calendar. Formerly, January began in the middle of the 12 days of Christmas, which reached a crescendo on the Epiphany, on 6 January. The festive season didn’t really finish until Candlemas on 2 February. Valentine’s Day was a genuine medieval feast; Mothering Sunday is traditional, too. The next big thing was Shrove Tuesday, the carnival before the 40-day fast of Lent. Then came Easter, the festival of resurrection. In June, there was a clutch of traditional and saints’ festivals, which coincided with old midsummer celebrations. After that, you might have the Victorian novelty of the harvest festival, followed by Hallowe’en. Then it was Advent, the month of expectation; mildly penitential. Finally, the 12 days of Christmas.
The secular year now starts with Banuary, a new and dispiriting month of abstinence and exercise in the worst possible month for both. It’s followed by Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day – both festivals of chocolate. We do pancakes but Lent doesn’t really register – we’ve done abstinence. Easter is low key, other than the chocolate element. Then there’s a gulf, punctuated by Father’s Day, until bonfire season. That’s followed by Movember, a mildly funny philanthropic exercise, which overlaps with the start of the party season at the end of November and concludes with the Christmas sales, which confusingly now take place before Christmas.
It isn’t wholly surprising that an increasingly secular society should try to put its stamp on the year. Auguste Comte attempted this with his positivist calendar in 1849, commemorating philosophers, scientists and writers. Our own version is still a work in progress but it’s already looking like a succession of commercial opportunities, with a focus on chocolate. It’s all quite dispiriting.