To our surprise, this holiday that delights small children and dentists alike (and me, for the chocolate) is celebrated with gusto here in the UK. Some people even decorate their homes, though we haven't yet seen any giant inflatable pumpkins. Debra, Arnie, Phil,
|a ghostly mother holding |
her spectral child?
There are some differences between American and English Halloweens. Mixed bags of tiny milky ways and snickers bars are, sadly, difficult to find in our Sainsbury local. And not only pumpkins are carved into jack-o-lanterns here.
known as "will-o-the-wisp." The name "jack-o-lantern" comes from an Irish legend about a man named Stingy Jack, who tricked the devil into buying him drinks. When Jack died, God wouldn't let him into heaven, and the devil was too mad at him to let him into hell, so Jack was doomed to wander the earth with only a burning coal, which he placed in a hollowed-out root vegetable, to light his way.
It appears, then, that the custom of carving and lighting jack-o-lanterns began in Ireland and moved to America with Irish immigrants. But those who are historically informed (by which I mean Sue) know that the pumpkin is a North American vegetable. So what did they carve here before the pumpkin invaded the British Isles?
The turnip. Or, as some call it, the swede. Or, as others say, the rutabaga.
But wait, you may point out. The rutabaga is...solid. And hard as a rock. That's why they are more or less inedible.
I'm not saying she eats them, but Sue carves them. She carved one for us, and we have it on display. Several knives, we are told, were harmed in its creation. It is a work of art and a testament to historical accuracy, arm strength, and sheer determination. And it's way scarier than a pumpkin.
Our feelings of being haunted grew stronger when Phil took his class on a field trip to Charleston, a farmhouse with beautiful gardens owned by Bloomsbury figures Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant and visited by all their many, many friends and lovers.
Guests at Charleston included Walter Sickert, who is reputed to be Jack the Ripper, the serial killer of at least five and possibly more than twice that many women in 1880s London. (The British mystery writer Patricia Cornwall was, for some reason, especially intent on proving that Sickert was the murderer, but she didn't manage to make her case definitively.)
Sickert's paintings, some of women who seem to be dead or dying, adorn the walls of the house (along with those of Picasso, Matisse, and other slightly more well-known but less Halloweenish artists). One in particular, of a flower girl with a monster's head, freaked the Professor out more than a little. As the tour guide was pointing out this artwork, there was a knock at the door, and when she went to answer it, no one was there. Returning to the group, she noted, a little nervously, that the house was haunted and such knocks happened often.
And one of our pubs this week, it turns out, is also haunted. We didn't have the pleasure of meeting Charlie, the elderly red-headed ghost that roams the Sutton Arms, but apparently he is relatively harmless, just throwing back his pint or two before returning to wherever it is that pub ghosts hang out. The stuffed otter hanging on the pub's wall, on the other hand, looks like it could do considerable damage.
Our haunted pub: