This is Mary Jo, cleverly disguised as Jo because Jo has a book due tomorrow (!!!) so I’m covering for her today. (This is the infamous nun-on-the-run and rake-on-the-make book, so I for one am looking forward to it!) Since today is Halloween, I have a natural topic. <g> So here are bits and pieces of Halloween history and opinionizing.
There’s an old saying that if you see a parade, get in front and maybe people will think you’re leading it. This analogy works for the way the Christian church co-opted pagan holidays. If people are going to be celebrating anyhow, let’s attach a Christian holiday so eventually everyone will think they’re celebrating a Christian holiday. Christmas attached rather nicely to the Saturnalia and other winter solstice celebrations, and Easter is good for spring frolics—eggs, bunnies and fertility, yes!
All Saints Day, honoring the spirits of the blessed departed, is November 1st, so All Hallows Evening (All-Hallows-Eve’n > Hallow-ev’n > Halloween) is October 31st. Traditionally, it is a time when the veil between the worlds of the seen and the unseen thins, and spirits can walk the land.
Apparently All Saints Day was once in spring, but it became attached to the Celtic pagan holiday Samhain (pronounced “Sow-on,” with the sow pronounced like the lady pig.) Samhain actually meant “November” in the Gaelic languages, and it celebrated the end of the harvest season. It’s still a major holiday among Wiccans and other pagans.
So All Saints Day and Samhain are both celebrations of death in their way, and it’s fitting that they’re in autumn. In olden days, winter was the killing season, when fierce weather and starvation always loomed as threats. Days shorten and turn cold, leaves fall and skitter eerily across the land, and birds fly south. On a dark and stormy night, it’s easy to believe that Death walks beside you. Dressing as a ghost or goblin when outside is a way of blending in with the other beings that walk the night.
A lot of Halloween customs originated in Ireland, the most Celtic of countries. A traditional cake for the holiday is barmbrack, a yeasted bread with dried fruit. Here’s a link to a recipe: http://www.veg-world.com/recipes/barmbrack.htm Often the cake would contain little tokens to suggest what the upcoming year would be like: a ring for a wedding, a coin for good fortune, and so forth. (Similar customs, often for Christmas cakes, are found in other Northern European cultures.)
When I lived in England, I was startled when a local friend said that yes, vegetables were carved and candles put inside, but frequently the vegetables were turnips. Turnips! It was a shock to my American system, though it makes sense, turnips being in good supply in the British Isles while pumpkins are natives of the Western Hemisphere.
Carved turnips are apparently still common in Ireland, though sometimes a swede (like a turnip, only not one) or even a mangel-wurzel, is used. The theme here is root vegetables, and they have to be a lot harder to hollow one out than pumpkins!
Wikipedia ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halloween ) has lots of information about Halloween if you want to dig further. (Their entry on Samhain is also good: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samhain ) I particularly liked their version of the legend of the jack-o’-Lantern
This week’s Newsweek had an interesting piece on neurology saying that the human mind likes to fill in missing pieces of puzzles to create pictures, and this can lead to imagining ghosts and the like when there are unexplained phenomena. Then the columnist suggested that this is why so many people believe in the unseen these days, and why Halloween had become enormously more popular as a holiday.
Well—No! The reason why Halloween has expanded is because my generation, the Boomers, who most certainly do not intend to go gentle into that good night, didn’t want to give up the fun of wearing costumes and dressing up. So they’ve carried costumes into adulthood. I’m not into costumes myself, but people have a lot of fun with it, so why not? Most of our modern Halloween practices are pretty recent, and definitely more festival than religious holiday.
Halloween decorations have also been a major growth industry. The amount of Stuff that can be bought is staggering—the holiday is one of the biggest of the year for consumer spending. And storing all the decorations, along with all our other Stuff, explain why there are now storage parks across America. <G> (In this season, the cat hospital where I take my kitties has a huge inflatable black cat moored to its front lawn, bouncing in the wind. It is roughly the size of an adult elephant. A cat with serious attitude!)
Like most kids, I liked Halloween because of the opportunity to go out and collect candy. Costumes were improvised from what was around the house and were seldom elaborate—in Upstate New York, the chances are you did your trick or treating in a heavy winter coat, so fancy costumes weren’t noticed.
No one worried about kids being fed razors or poisoned candy or such. The biggest hazard was being hit by a car as we tromped along the shoulder of a rural state highway, but I never heard of that happening. And if all the sugar made us hyperactive—well, this was before anyone had heard of ADD. <g>
One of my favorite Halloweens was babysitting for my ten-year niece, a most excellent young lady, quite a lot of years ago. My brother had a business trip to Europe and his wife wanted to go, but obviously their daughter couldn’t be left alone. I was unemployed at the time, having left my last Real Job, so I was able to move into their house for a couple of weeks—which happened to include Halloween.
The house was in a nice, low traffic neighborhood with lots of trees and kids, so there were masses of trick-or-treaters heading in all directions. I went out with my niece, which was fun, while my SO manned the house and handed out candy. A good time was had by all, and being in Northern Virginia, quilted coats and galoshes weren’t required.
I do remember one household, though, where the mother had made incredibly elaborate costumes for herself and all her kids. The theme was pumpkins, with great round padded pumpkin globes that required serious internal structure, and little quilted caps that mimicked pumpkin stem and leaves. I figure that they must have taken weeks of work, and privately decided that the mom was seriously underemployed and desperate for a creative outlet. <g>
Author Heather MacAllister has done some fun holiday decorating on her website After the intro, it opens to a very interesting looking recipe for roast pumpkin soup: http://www.heathermacallister.com/
Here’s a link from Jo about spiders on drugs, which seems in keeping with the holiday. It starts out like a Canadian Broadcasting nature snippet, but soon turns very colorful indeed. You are warned! <g>
So that’s some miscellaneous reflections on Halloween. What about you? Is this a holiday you enjoy, despise, or tolerate? Do you get dressed up in costume? Have any favorite stories? Please share!