Halloween is in the air. The pumpkins are on the stoop, and gravestones, witches, and spider webs have mysteriously appeared in people’s front yards. There were thousands of children in costumes at the zoo the other day. Haunted houses are open for business around town. The stores, of course, are crammed with masks and candy galore. It makes me think back to what a big event this was in our childhood. Except for Christmas and Santa, Halloween was the most thrilling time of the year. Everybody at our grade school dressed up in costumes. The greatest hilarity was reserved for boys who opted to dress up as girls, a transformation met with fascination, anxiety, and giggles by children who were otherwise busy acquiring rigidly defined gender roles. With a sense of safety deriving from almost non-existent crime rate, parents would stay at home in the evening handing out treats, while groups of kids went out and wandered around on their own. Because we lived in the country, we’d come to town to the O’Hara’s house and try to cover their entire Stephenson Avenue neighborhood. At night’s end we’d spread out large piles of goodies on the floor and eat sweets till we were feeling wobbly. A kid’s dream come true.
Halloween is special in part because of its supernatural origins. Historians trace the holiday back to the Celtic festival of Samhain in the British Isles over 2000 years ago. According to the Druid religion of the Celts, the spirits of those who died in the past year would rise and walk the earth on Halloween night. Lord Samhain, the Lord of Darkness, would arrive and take the spirits to the Underworld. In medieval times people wore masks and costumes so they wouldn’t be recognized as human beings by the ghosts and spirits who roamed the countryside. Trick-or-treating originated with poor people going door to door on Halloween eve, receiving food in return for their praying for the dead on All Souls’ Day. The people carved jack-o’-lanterns out of turnips in order to protect themselves from the evil spirits. Immigrants to America switched to pumpkins because they were more plentiful and easier to carve.
There are undoubtedly many reasons why Halloween holds so much appeal. Some that strike me are:
Community. Halloween is more of a community celebration than any other holiday. While most holidays are celebrated inside the walls of a house, major Halloween activities occur outdoors, with kids going door-to-door throughout the neighborhood, enjoying interchanges with dozens of strangers and acquaintances, and the entire community becoming a dispensary of sweets and goodies.
Costumes and altered selves. Halloween offers all the wonders of identity transformations – shedding one’s everyday self and temporarily becoming a pirate, cowboy or cowgirl, princess, even Batman or Superman. (One of our friends’ children has decided to be a red blood cell this year.) Kids don masks and become anonymous, enjoying all the feelings of liberation that come with being unidentifiable.
Group behavior. One doesn’t do Halloween alone, but rather in groups of peers, preferably in the absence of parents. Kids play off of one another, escalating their excitement and boisterousness.
Scary. Halloween maintains its ties to the evil and the undead. Thanks to the media, Halloween is peopled with ghosts and ghouls, witches, vampires, werewolves, and zombies. Despite kids’ recognition that this is fantasy, they do work at frightening one another, and going around in the dark adds a certain tension to the festivities.
Impulse gratification. One can accumulate almost endless sweets and goodies in the course of Halloween evening. And the “trick” component of trick-or-treating allows for mischievous behavior as well, a legitimized license for acting out in deviant but rewarding ways.
Most holidays – e.g., Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter – are centered around families. Halloween is too, but it’s the most kid-centered of all. You’d think that kids had dreamed the whole thing up. That’s probably why the excitement sticks with you for a long time afterwards.
-Phyllis S-S (10-31): Dave, I especially loved the postcards and the tidbit about carving turnips first. Fascinating stuff. Phyllis
-Jennifer M (10-31): Funny to learn the origins of this holiday. And funny to see your analysis of it today. :-)
-Gayle C-L (10-31): David, A great story as usual. Your blogs are so interesting and fun that I am going to publish them once in awhile in my soon to be e newsletters My e newsletters will be Real Estate related and other cool topics. I ll send my newsletters to you as well. Ok keep up the good work . Give my love to all. Take care. X. O. G