Halloween as a holiday has always perplexed me.
Not the actual festivities of Halloween, I’m not confused by that.
Goblins and witches, ghosts and ghouls, skeletons and pumpkins and candy corn. I get that. Ok, maybe not candy corn, but then again I don’t understand why people eat sushi or tofu either, so there’s that.
But I don’t get Halloween itself as an American holiday.
Halloween is generally believed to have begun as various pagan harvest festivals that got more or less “Christianized” when the Catholic Church showed up in the Celtic lands during the 5th and 6th centuries and decided everybody was having way too much fun.
Naturally the Church wasn’t going to allow a bunch of Celts to go around unjesusified, and so a whole bunch of pagan rituals and Christian dogma got mashed together and by the 12th Century it was was more or less known has All Saint’s Day (also variously All Hallows’ Day, Hallowmas, Hallowtide). In other words: what had been a fun pagan weekend of booze and orgies and general merriment became your standard issue grim Christian day of vigils and prayers and sermons and obligation (Now you know why so many Christian missionaries to Scotland and Ireland ended up being burned at the stake).
By Shakespeare's time it was generally believed that the souls of the departed who weren’t either immediately lofted directly to Heaven or condemned directly to Hell, were trapped for a time in Catholic Purgatory. All Hallows’ Day give those souls one final chance to select their ultimate destination.
In some places, like France, these beliefs were expanded into the idea that once a year dead souls would rise from the graveyard for a night of revelry in the danse macabre. And really, leave it to the French to have the departed dancing and carousing about like a Grateful Dead concert instead of being engaged in the grim nasty business of haunting and bodily possessions. Far be it from me to judge, but it would appear that being dead in France beats the heck out being dead anywhere else – just in case you’re the type who likes to plan ahead.
The practice of baking little treats, soul cakes, arose during this period, along with lighting candles in the windows of homes to help the lost souls find their way variously home, to heaven, or back to the graveyard (the dead have notoriously bad night vision).
The poor began going door to door where they were given sweets, soul cakes, or other small treats, supposedly as a way to help the souls get to heaven (how exactly giving poor people cake helps the dead cross over escapes me, but then again it doesn’t seem any weirder than most other religious beliefs to me, so I’m willing to roll with it). Some folks wore costumes and disguises to confuse the spirits, others dressed up as their patron Saints in order to honor God and the departed. Some folks began putting their candles into carved gourds or elaborate lanterns. There were hundreds of variations, additions and elaborations, to the rituals of All Saint’s Day across Europe, depending on the influence and inclination of the local Catholic Church and it’s difficult to pin down precisely how the whole mess evolved over the centuries.
However it happened, people being people, eventually the night before the solemn joyless business of honoring the Saints and the process of urging lost souls to go be lost somewhere else evolved into a party and people started having a little fun once again.
Naturally that didn’t sit well with the more religious types, fun being sort of the antithesis of fundamentalism and all.
Over in what had been the Celtic lands, where all of this business started, there were the Protestants, a dour and unsmiling lot who regarded the fun of All Hallows’ Eve as your basic deviltry.
The Protestants looked upon the various rituals surrounding Halloween as “popery” and the trappings of the Catholic church and/or paganism – which they, of course, were. The Protestants weren’t having any of that nonsense and so when they set off to settle the New World, they left it all behind along with the Catholics.
The first few centuries in the New World were mostly free of such things, if you disregard the occasional witch hunt.
But then the Potato Blight struck Europe, in particular those self-same Celtic lands, and a whole bunch of folks decided to immigrate to America rather than starve to death.
And they brought with them All Hallows’ Eve.
At first it was confined to ethnic neighborhoods of Irish and Scottish immigrants, but it wasn’t long before the rest of America was wondering why they shouldn’t be dressing up in funny outfits and getting themselves some tasty treats too.
By the early 20th Century, Halloween was a going concern, and naturally it got combined with the various American fall harvest festivals which added in pumpkin carving and bobbing for apples and hay rides and haunted houses and the Charlie Brown Halloween Special.
It being America, it didn’t take long for capitalism to override any lingering protestant disdain once Wall Street figured out that they could commercialize the whole thing and turn a tidy profit.
And so, here we are.
As a kid back in Michigan, I loved Halloween. We’d roam the neighborhood dressed up as ghosts and witches and comic-book characters. From previous experience and word on the street, we’d know at which houses the good treats could be found and where we’d end up with a lame old popcorn ball or a homemade cookie (which Halloween law decreed you must immediately throw away upon returning home because they would, of course, be filled with rat poison and razor blades) – or worse, the neighborhood dentist’s house where they’d hand out toothbrushes and coupons for office visits. That first night we’d eat candy until we turned green with nausea, and then we’d hoard the rest like Smaug the Dragon sleeping on top of his pile of Dwarvish gold. Over the next month the stash would diminish piece by piece, from best to worst, until there would be only an individual sized pack of sugar-free Chiclets (stupid dentist) or a lose fuzzy handful of stale candy corn in the bottom of your sock drawer.
Halloween really hits its stride in college. There’s nothing like a college Halloween kegger, is there? Or a drunken Halloween office party. And when you're a parent of small children, certainly Halloween is pretty enjoyable.
But when you’re my age? Meh. There’s nothing in it for me.
The mishmash of strange religious rituals, goofy clothing, free handouts, and fun?
I dunno, maybe it’s just me, but it sure seems like this is the one night each year where conservatives get to act like liberals do all of the time.
I don’t expect I’ll see much in the way of Trick or Treaters tonight. I live in rural Alaska, in all the time I’ve lived here I think we’ve only had one kid come to the door – one of the advantages of living on a dark, sparsely settled street and at the end of a long cold drive. Usually I pick up a couple bags of candy just in case, but since it’s likely that I’ll end up eating it all myself, I get the expensive kind I like, no candy corn or Sweet Tarts and nothing “fun sized.”
Update: I went out today to buy a bag of candy. Unfortunately, the place I went only had the giant-sized wholesale bags. So I bought one. Figuring, hey, if nobody shows up, I’ll have candy for a month. Then my wife came home, being her and knowing me, she figured she better stop on the way home and pick up some candy, just in case. And, of course, it being the 31st, it was all on sale. My wife not being one to pass up a sale, we now have enough candy to equip a good sized college frat party.
Hmmm, maybe I better look up the number of the neighborhood dentist.
How about you folks?
What do you do for Halloween? Stay in? Go out? Dress up and get drunk on candy corn?