by Elaine Bullock
I’ve always loved Halloween. Not the sugar filled gore fest that we see swarming the streets these days, but the subtle one that whispers to us from the bowels of winter. I still remember the exact moment it changed. An eight-year-old me, stood alone in the garden with a lit firework in my hand (I know, dangerous right?). Everyone had gotten too cold and already gone inside, and I remember being fascinated by the phosphorate glare, delighted by the danger and being left for a few minutes. But once the firework had naturally extinguished and the smoke curls drifted up into the sky, I gazed up following their ghostly dance and was left alone with the night and the expansive darkness. In that moment I got a sense of something much bigger than me, and I struggled to put a name to it. The air tingled with something that felt electric and without thinking I lit another firework. This one was different though. I looked up before the smoke coiled into the sky, and acknowledged whatever was up there. This firework was lit in reverence to whatever this unseen thing was; and another, and another. What confused me, was that this presence felt dark, like it embraced the bad bits. A far cry from my religious upbringing spouting about sin and repentance. By the end of my ritual, my little face was beaming. It seemed to accept all of me, including the shadows.
As I grew up, Halloween continued to hold a special place for me. I learnt more about its roots as the final harvest in the year, marking summer’s end and the transition to the darker half of the year. It is considered by many to be a liminal time, where the veil between this world and the spirit world is at its thinnest; if that’s your kind of thing. I enjoyed celebrating in my own way, with what some would call a ‘feast of the dead’. The idea would be to host a supper, eaten entirely in silence. Additional spaces would be set at the table for spirits that had passed or ancestors, and the idea behind the silence was to be able to focus on connecting with them. Out of a sense of obligation I invited my family to these feasts, but they never came, missing the point of a harvest festival and a pause to acknowledge the changing seasons, stating that ‘Halloween was for kids’.
My family was not particularly large, but their personalities made up for that. Each year around the Christmas table, I would shovel my dinner in as quickly as possible, slopping gravy down my chin and hiccupping due to lack of breath. I would ask to get up just so I could pour wine into all the adults’ glasses in a bid to get them merry and more likely to agree that I could get down from the table early. Once granted, I would find a cushion, one of my Christmas gifts in the form of a book and find a hidden nook where I could absorb myself, secreted away from the interruption of raucous laughter or more commonly ‘healthy heated debates’. My parents would stumble upon me, hours later asking why I was out of bed and seemed confused when I would explain that they hadn’t yet put me to bed.
I had always had it drilled into me how important family was and grew up attending various gatherings, not wanting to offend my mother. She was proficient in sulking when things didn’t go as she expected them to, and her silence could last weeks. Christmas, particularly, came with such high expectations about everything; something I found exhausting. The food had to be perfect, the tree and decorations festive but tasteful, the presents wrapped neatly. The memory of my mother hissing at ten-year-old me that I had ruined Christmas still stung. I had accidentally frozen half the turkey, turning up the fridge because the milk felt warm. Then there were the expectations around gifts; not smiling enough, not saying thank you enough, not being enthusiastic enough. Get the balance wrong and it would be made obvious just how offensive you had been. I always held my breath when my family unwrapped the gifts I made them, never knowing whether their disappointment would be expressed in an audible sigh accompanied by an eye roll, or more obviously with a stunned silence followed by a ‘what is it?’.
In my twenties I wouldn’t be granted the same leniency around the Christmas table and each family member would use my confinement to take it in turns to garner my opinion on various matters. One Christmas stood out.
‘What do you think of all them folks coming over on boats then?’ My grandmother asked; a dangerous twinkle in her rheumy eyes.
‘As long they don’t wear one of these silly long things that covers them from head to toe, so I get to see if there’s a decent pair of legs underneath, I don’t care!’ Uncle Henry hooted, from the kitchen rooting around in the bottles, trying to find something stronger.
‘Well... it’s just awful isn’t it?’ I responded solemnly, trying to unsee the image of a toddler’s body washed up on a beach.
‘Yes, yes. But then they just seem to be everywhere, and I don’t know who is under those things or what they might be carrying, or what’s even in their backpack! I’m telling you I had a tickly throat during the week, and I called the doctors to try and get an appointment for some antibiotics but couldn’t get through! So, there I was, at eighty four, getting the bus down to the doctors surgery, only to be stood at the back of a long queue. What are all these people doing? Why aren’t they working? I could have been in a different country there were that many languages talking; and none of them in English!’
‘Gran’, I started. ‘Many people have fled conflict; horrors that you and I are lucky enough to only witness through a television. They have spent their life savings trying to do the best they can to protect their family and have possibly spent days or weeks at sea, bumping from one detention centre to the next…’
‘I appreciate that,’ she cut me off, uninterested in my actual opinion. ‘But surely they should learn to speak English before they come over here…’ the steady sound of her well-worn narrative vitriol pouring out, uninterested in a two-way conversation. I sat with my teeth clenched, trying to steady my breathing, but was physically compelled to jump up and prematurely clear the table, muttering about Christmas pudding.
My gran didn’t try to hide her comment to my mother ‘haven’t you taught her any manners? I was still eating.’
After this, I found various ways to politely decline Christmas invitations from the family, until I eventually became a regular, volunteering at the shelter and my family stopped inviting me. I always made sure to send a selection of generic store gift cards, but never got a thank you.
And so, Halloween continued to be my favourite time of year, an antidote to the greed of Christmas. On this day I tried to take a pause to be grateful for what I had. Sitting down to my simple breakfast I registered that the coffee I was sipping were beans flown over from Columbia, I thought of the wheat stalks in the field and the farmer gathering the wheat, selling it to a miller to grind into flour, the bread company using it to bake a shade of what could be recognised as bread with a million additives inside. The orange juice I sipped, likely from various places around the globe, and the eggs. At least the eggs were free range and local. I had topped muesli with fresh strawberries and I thought about the nut trees, grains and honey bees. The strawberries reminded me of an article I had read about the Government enforcing strict numbers and costly visas on migrant workers for fruit picking, in keeping with the government’s larger policy stance around reducing immigration. When the fruit and vegetables sat unpicked and rotting on the farms and the supermarkets had to import alternatives from across the sea, the Government backtracked and introduced a new policy, upgrading agricultural workers to suit their agenda from ‘low skilled’ to ‘high skilled’. Then I remembered the taxpayer’s money spent by the same government on an ‘inquiry’ into why this shortage of labour happened.
This year, I decided not to mention Halloween on my invite to any of my family, and instead advised them that I would be hosting a supper with plenty of alcohol, seasonal homemade pies, casseroles, handmade bread, including a course of autumnal nuts, berries and fruit. The invite led with an uncharacteristic reminder of how important family was, and how I expected to see them all there.
I sat back in my chair and looked around the room. The table looked so festive. The black tablecloth dimmed the room adding atmosphere and orange and black candles flickered down the centre of the table. There were plates piled high full of buttery mashed potato, beef stew with root vegetables bought freshly that day at the local farmers market, handmade pumpkin seed bread, a steaming pie, with crispy, shiny pastry, juicy corn, and ruby red wine filled every glass. My mum, grandmother and uncle were seated around the table. As I raised my glass in a toast, the others followed. Setting my glass down, I took turns to look each of them in the eye. My grandmother opened her mouth to say something and clamped it shut again. I didn’t try to hide the smirk on my face as I tucked into the feast, giving thanks for all I had before me.
Elaine Bullock lives in the remote wilds of County Donegal in Ireland with her ever-patient family and rescue dog. After almost a decade’s experience in tech marketing management roles she decided on a complete career change to pursue her passion of writing. She is currently a student at the Queens University of Belfast in Northern Ireland, studying a master’s degree in creative writing.