I considered buying a turnip this week. It was very round and quite big and conjured up memories of my childhood Hallowe’ens in North Belfast.
Size is important for a Hallowe’en turnip. Big enough to have an impressively wide-cut mouth and triangular eyes and nose. A slice one third of the way down gives enough room to scoop out the interior. The scrapings, mashed together with a carrot, can be dished up for tea. A little hollowed out area in the bottom of the turnip makes room for a plain white household candle. String inserted at ear level, pushed through and secured around the lid makes a convenient carrying handle. Finished - the Jack O’Lantern was lit and set on the front outside windowsill, where he provided a warmly grinning backdrop to our annual fireworks party.
In Mountcollyer Avenue, neighbouring families gathered together to make the most of our collections of fireworks, bought out of pocket money over the preceeding two or three weeks and carefully hoarded for the Big Night. Cornflake packet cardboard and crayon-scented falsefaces, or if you were lucky - a shop-bought plastic one, were hastily put on - the elastic bands cutting our ears and the backs of our heads. Thick coats, gloves and socks under Wellington boots somewhat spoiled the Big Bad Witch effect, and mother’s yardbrush didn’t quite cut it as a broomstick, but our imaginations were lively enough, and the odd “BOO” was sufficient to send us screaming and laughing from group to group.
But now it was time. The Huntley & Palmers 5 lb biscuit tin, with lid, a large box of Bryant & May’s Bengal matches, a bucket of water and another of garden soil all stood ready in the front yard. Everyone had saved just enough to have a packet of sparklers each and if you waved them round in a circle, they left those curious smoke ring impressions in the evening gloom. Each child had a toffee apple on a stick, the sweetness of the caramel making up for the sourness of the Bramley underneath.
And now the first Roman Candle was selected and stood up in the cracks between the glistening paving stones (it always rained at Halloween). Only Dads and the bigger boys were allowed to light the blue touchpapers, and retire. Then followed an entrancing display of colour and noise and light, with Catherine Wheels leaving blisters on the painted fence, and Jumpin’Jinnies chasing our scampering ankles as we ran from their unpredictable paths. Co-op milk bottles provided perfect launchers for rockets, whose firey contents illuminated the surrounding chimneypots with sparkling showers of silvery rain. Triangular Volcanoes were a special favourite, bursting into a deep red glow with a ferocious “crackel-crack-crackel” before hissing into smokey silence after a convincing Vesuvius-inspired swoo-oosh of crimson flame.
But oh what disappointment if the fuse seemingly went out - everyone watching anxiously as Dad approached it gingerly, step by step, hand outstretched, just in case it was a late starter, the “oohs” and “aahs” if it erupted, the groaning if it was indeed a damp squib.
When the big square biscuit tin was indeed finally empty, we all trooped inside for sausage rolls, apples to be ducked for, and the piece de resistance - an O’Hara’s Bakery Apple Tart - remember them? - the ones with crusts like kerbstones. And especially for Halloween, hidden inside the sweet juicy centre, an elusive brass ring, wrapped in greaseproof paper. They didn’t have to pass EU regulations then! Oh, to be the lucky one getting the ring which meant a whole year of good luck. What a feast, what a party, what happy memories!
It’s not the same anymore. Now you need a licence for your fireworks, the Councils put on big setpieces when thousands of pounds worth go up in 15 minutes, and the supermarkets are selling those posh orange pumpkins from America. Sure, even your toffee apples come with options - sprinkles or chocolate coated.
I say bring back the simple street party, the squibs, and the turnips!