A key test for telling if you are a real Manxie is the name you use for the annual shenanigans on October 31.The true native will never refer to ‘Trick or Treat’ or even ‘Halloween’. It is always Hop tu Naa, one of the Isle of Man’s most ancient traditions.
Based on the old Celtic festival of Samhain, marking the beginning of winter, Hop tu Naa is similar to Halloween elsewhere but has unique features of its own.
Traditionally gorse bushes were set on fire to drive off evil spirits and young women ate a special cake which caused them to dream of future husbands. They made their own entertainment in those days.
Instead of pumpkins, turnips (‘moots’) are still used to create outlandish lanterns, being scarier but harder to carve.
Most distinctive of all is the Hop tu Naa song or rather songs, for each corner of the Island has its own version of this baffling ditty. ‘Hop tu Naa’ is thought to derive from the Manx for ‘Tonight’s the Night’ while the other words are suitably mysterious and supernatural.
Children in Douglas have the easiest task with a short chant about Jinny the Witch flying over the house. Jinny appears in most other versions too, and may be based on an 18th century witch called Joney Lowney from Braddan, who was accused of interfering with corn mills and vanishing overnight.
The latter might just be linked to the second half of the Douglas song – ‘me mother’s gone away, and she won’t be back until the morning’.
The Ramsey version is longer and has Jinny eating a variety of animals starting with a horse and ending with a rodent.
In Castletown Jinny flies over the house, as in Douglas, but the singer has also been to London, where they met a lady baking cakes. This is similar to the Peel song, which amongst other things features an ole woman baking bonnag.
An old and rather dramatic version of Hop tu Naa can be found in Dr John Clague’s book Manx Reminiscences, containing folklore he gathered in the latter half of the 19th century.
This song, obtained from the blind Bradda fisherman Thomas Kermode, recounts how the singer scalded their throat with a broth made from a little spotted heifer. After drinking at a well they encountered a grinning polecat and ran away to Scotland, where the ploughs were ploughing, the harrows were harrowing and a young woman was cutting cheese.
Cutting her finger, she wrapped it in a cloth and locked it in a chest where it ‘made stock and store’. Just to add to the confusion the verse concludes cryptically: ‘Three brown sheep/Had William the grandson.’
Did these strange words once hold a mystical significance that has long been lost to us? Or were our ancestors just having a laugh?
By Alistair Ramsay, October 2020