The first thing to tell you about Hop-tu-naa is that it’s pronounced Hop Chew Nay. The second is that, roughly translated, it means “this is the night”. The third is that Hop-tu-naa is the Isle of Man’s version of Halloween – although, if you asked a true Manxie, they’d probably tell you it should be the other way round, since many islanders claim that Hop-tu-naa is the originator of Halloween.
I don’t know if that’s true. I’m not sure anyone could prove it if it was. But one thing I can do is tell you how unique, how different, how strange Hop-tu-naa felt when I first experienced it as an island newbie back in 2003.
I grew up in Somerset. On the evening of the 31st October, I was used to seeing kids knocking on doors, wearing spooky costumes, shouting trick or treat. When I answered my door on Halloween, I’d have a bunch of sweets ready to hand out. If I didn’t answer my door, I’d expect to get a LOT of silly string squirted through my letterbox.
So imagine my surprise come the 31st October 2003, when I’d just moved to the Isle of Man to live with my then girlfriend (now wife), and I heard children singing outside our door. I opened the door to find kids in costume, which was familiar enough, but these kids were carrying turnip lanterns, since traditionally people on the Isle of Man don’t carve pumpkins, and the song they were singing wasn’t anything sweet like a Christmas carol; it was bizarre and very sinister:
My mother’s gone away,
And she won’t be back until the morning,
Jinny the witch flew over the house,
To fetch the stick,
To lather the mouse,
My mother’s gone away,
And she won’t be back until the morning.
The kids finished singing and held out their hands. Maybe some of them hoped for sweets, but my wife gave them coins, which is another Isle of Man tradition. When she closed the door, I asked her about the strange song lyrics. Since she’s a local historian, she told me that Jinny the witch had been a real woman called Joney Lowney, who was found guilty of witchcraft by the island’s Bishop and sentenced to penance in 1716.
Being a crime writer, I was intrigued. Years later, I did some research of my own into Hop-tu-na and learned something that fascinated me. Many Hop-tu-naa (and for that matter, Halloween) traditions are connected with divination, and one such custom was that on the night of Hop-tu-naa, a Manx family might traditionally put out the fire in their hearth and spread the ashes to cool. The following morning, they’d hope that when they woke they’d find a footprint in the ashes. If the footprint pointed out towards a doorway, superstition suggested that there would be a birth in the family during the following year. If, however, the footprint pointed in towards the hearth, it meant that somebody in the family would die.
Spooky, right? I thought so. And I was also pretty sure I had the germ of an idea for a crime novel. That idea grew into Dark Tides, in which a group of Manx teenagers perform dares every Hop-tu-naa until, one year, a dare goes terribly wrong, changing all their futures and triggering a series of murders. At the heart of the novel is Claire Cooper, whose own mother disappeared on Hop-tu-naa when she was eight years old, and who must overcome her terror of a date that’s always tormented her if she’s to stop a killer and unlock the dark secrets of her past.
So, in many ways, Dark Tides is a classic Halloween chiller – except that it’s different in every detail, because it’s really about Hop-tu-naa.
Dark Tides by Chris Ewan is out now from Faber & Faber for £14.99.