Daring to venture to the witch’s lair on Halloween

A turnip lantern, like we used to make in the old days.
A turnip lantern, like we used to make in the old days.

When I was a lad, back in the 60s, Halloween was nothing like it is today.

Well that’s not strictly true: we did use to make lanterns, but not with pumpkins.

In those days we used to use turnips (now here’s a thing, we called them turnips but I think, strictly speaking, they were swedes – the large purple variety rather than the smaller white type).

Whatever they were, we would happily lop off their heads, sliced as straight as possible to form a lid, and then scoop out the flesh with a spoon. And scoop ... and scoop ... and scoop ... until your arm ached and the draining board in the kitchen was covered in a mountain of orangey mush.

Next, we’d fish out mam’s best carving knife and carefully carve two eyes, a nose and a ziggerdy-zaddery mouth in the front of its “face”.

Then it was off to the cupboard under the sink for a candle. There were always candles under the sink – not the fragrant decorative types that you pay a fortune for today, but the practical (placed there in case there was a power cut) candle.

Once cut in half, the candle would be secured (after repeated attempts to keep it upright) at the bottom of the turnip.

After a few mouthfuls of raw turnip (swede), it was time to tackle the handle – a piece of string pushed through two holes in the top sides of the vegetable, and secured by knots.

Now, all we had to do was wait for it to get dark – and persuade our mothers that we could be trusted with “the matches”.

And that’s another odd thing. The Swan Vestas were grudgingly handed over (with strict instructions on their use) only to be followed by a Halloween treat – a pack of novelty matches that glowed different colours when they were lit!

Cometh the dark, cometh the lanterns, and off we went to meet our mates.

Duly gathered, it was time to light the candle, which was easier said than done.

You know how it was always warmer and sunnier when you were a kid, so it was always damp and windy (or so it seemed) on Halloween night.

So time and again it was a case of strike the match, spark the wick and ... out went the flame.

Finally, the wick spluttered into life and, low and behold, we had light. Quickly, we repositioned the lid, and marvelled at the spooky creation held up to our faces.

They were a triumph of terror (well not quite), but at least they resembled some strange spectral face.

Now what to do? How about wandering the streets (you could do that in safety in those days), with string in hand, swinging our lanterns as high as we dared, ready to “scare” any passers by.

So off we went, and out went the candle.

Another couple of used matches later, and we were off – heading for the “witch’s” house.

It wasn’t really a witch’s house, of course, but an old, rundown house that had been standing empty for as long as anyone could remember after the widow, who had once lived there, passed away some years before.

But with its ramshackle appearance, weed-strewn garden and squeaky gate, what else could it be but a witch’s house?

And one of us was about to be chosen – to knock at the door.

No asking for tricks or treats in those days, this was an act of bravery ... fear ... foolishness.

Right, who’s the smallest?

“Okay, sneak up the path, knock on the door and leg it before the witch has time to answer.”

It was just after teatime, but was that cheerless chime not the church clock striking midnight? Hmm, can’t tell due to the haunting hoot of an owl.

Undaunted, the daring volunteer/victim pushed open the creaking gate and was swallowed up in the shadows – the perfect place for a black cat to hide.

Suddenly, fearful for what his parents might say if he was mysteriously turned into a frog, we decided to follow him, just as he mounted the step.

Before us stood a dark uninviting door, either side of which were equally dark dust-encrusted windows; empty eyes watching us, as one by one we held up our lanterns in a vain attempt to peer through them ... and on into the witch’s lair beyond.

At once, a coven of ghostly faces swam into view, staring back at us from the curtain-less windows. And worse still, a horrible smell now rose up all around us.

Surely, it was the witch’s spell being cast? In terror, we fled from the scene, snuffing out our candles as we ran.

Only when we were well away from the witch’s house did we stop and reflect on our lucky escape.

Even so, nobody considered the possibility that the faces at the windows could have been the reflections of our own lanterns, and the foul smell – the stink of burning turnip.

But then again, it might just have been the spirit of the house ... having a laugh on Halloween.