Friday, October 30, 2009

a dark, dark tale

Earlier this month I would wake up early and go to work, and the air would be crisp and would remind me of when we used to go camping when I was a kid: that getting out of the tent feeling early in the morning. Then a few weeks ago the sky was so blue and I could almost hear the hot air balloons overhead—October is always Balloon Fiesta time in New Mexico. The other night there was a night bird singing as the wind blew all the leaves from the trees—not only is it autumn, I thought, this is Halloween weather.

I’ve asked myself many times why this “holiday” so obsesses me. When I was writing columns for Noticias for fun, I wrote one seasonal one about Halloween, in which I tried to justify Halloween (not only to myself, but possibly to people who think it’s Devil-worship). I’ll quote directly from the article:

In an excellent essay by Neopagan Isaac Bonewitz, it appears that Halloween as we know it had its origins in the Celtic/Pagan fire festival of Samhain[1]. Some scholars refer to it as the beginning of the Celtic New Year, and it was certainly the beginning of the Winter Season. When it was absorbed into the Christian church calendar, the day became All Saints’ Day. Celtic seasons started at sunset, so the night before became “Hallowed Evening,” of course translating to “Halloween.”

Many of the recognizable traditions we practice on Halloween today come from this Celtic tradition: the handing out of treats for youngsters, the theme of death and the spirit world (which we see most purely translated in Dia de los Muertos today), and, my personal favorite, costumes. As author Philip Carr-Gomm describes in Elements of the Druid Tradition, “Time was abolished for three days of this festival [Samhaim] and . . . men dressed as women and women as men.” As for the candy, early November has for centuries been a time of feasting; by the late nineteenth century, rowdy kids in Ireland and the United States made themselves such a nuisance on Halloween that adults organized “safe” Halloween rituals for the younger kids. A little later, we see the word trick-or-treat coming into use, about 1939.
Halloween is still very much an American holiday, though commercially I’ve seen it making in-roads in the UK and even France. I don’t quite know why it caught on in the US; I suppose you’d have to ask Washington Irving! Different countries have different times for festivals of misrule and/or costumed shenanigans,

The costume element of modern Halloween can be incredibly fun—disguise and pretense ameliorated by the spirit of the day. Mardi Gras functions this way in some countries, such as France, that don’t celebrate Halloween. Medieval feast days, including, perhaps most famously, January 6th, the Epiphany (or the Feast of Fools), were opportunities for role reversal through costume. The rich and poor would exchange roles, doing this through costume, and the Catholic religion would endure one day of mockery (“mock the prig and shock the priest”) from its normally devout flock. Human culture loves to pretend, a custom we’ve kept going since ancient Greek drama.

From what I’ve experienced in Britain, Britons don’t need an excuse to dress up, they will do fancy dress any time of the year, as the custom of pantomime proves! I have wondered why Canadians have more of a concept of pantomime; I speculated that tough colonials like Americans and Australians wouldn’t stomach the concept of cross-dressing in the same way. Am I totally off the mark? Perhaps we Americans needed to align this fancy-dress thing with Halloween and its appeal to a darker nature in order to make it socially acceptable?

I concluded in the article that it was the dressing-up and the appeal to the darker nature that fascinated me about Halloween. I’ve written tons about that darker element, since the Gothic Horror class gave me ample opportunity to do so.

Granted, as Bonewitz goes on to say, “Halloween became a holiday in modern times for which half the fun was being scared out of one’s wits.”

Don’t ask me why, I love the Gothic, I love that frisson of fright. (among others) But firmly in fiction: my imagination is too good that if anything unearthly ever happened to me, I’d probably die on the spot of sheer terror.

But thinking back, I probably began loving Halloween because my mom read Halloween books to me when I was very small. I remember them well. Scared Silly had to do with Harold the dog, Chester the cat, Howie the dachshund, and Bunnicula the rabbit, not to mention their unsuspecting owners the Monroes. I loved Scary Scary Halloween because of the lovely rhyme, the thought of the mother cat protecting her kittens from monsters even though they were just kids in costumes, and then the cats getting to play after all the kids had gone home. I also remember Clifford’s Halloween and The Berenstein Bears’ Halloween. A Dark Dark Tale scared the crap out of me even though it had an ending that deflated all the fear you’d built up. It was mostly Stephen Gammell’s horrific illustrations from the Scary Stories series that kept me up at night. I would not recommend those books for very young children. Adults, even. Similarly horrible illustrations for Jack Prelutsky[2]’s The Headless Horseman Rides Tonight.

I don’t think I’ve raised any new points here or plumbed any depths of my subconscious to tell you better why I like Halloween so much. To be fair, I also love Christmas and go to great lengths to do all the festive things at that time of year, too. It’s funny, you look at Dickens, who popularized Christmas into the huge, jolly[3] festival it’s become today, and all he wrote about at Christmas were ghosts! He, too, must have realized that people love the little chill on their spine that makes them sit closer to the fire. Mind you, that Spirit of Christmas Still to Come is scary. Have you ever seen Scrooged? Or Want and Ignorance who come out from under Christmas Present’s robe begging for pity and help? Even Dickens’ supernatural was tinged with a social conscience.

Have you ever seen Disney’s Fantasia? The “Night on Bald Mountain” is another potentially terrifying sequence, but you know how it ends? Calmly—with figures holding candles and putting the anti-Christ mountain back to sleep. That part used to bore me as a child (!) but there is that element to Halloween, too. It’s appropriate that many people in New Mexico still celebrate Dia de los Muertos—even though everything is all skeleton-themed, it’s about thinking of your dearly departed, the passing of your family and honoring their memory. Nothing spooky, nothing scary. The flower traditionally associated with this day is the marigold.

I wonder if that’s why I’m so attracted to Milton’s Comus above everything else he ever wrote, including Paradise Lost. It took place and was written for Michelmas, the Carolinian Halloween and a festival of misrule, perhaps a bit like the Shrovetide Ball held in Phantom of the Opera. His study in excess and insatiability, Comus, Circe’s son, is as seductive and intriguing as his Satan, and we all find our selves “taking the Devil’s part” to an extent. However, he’s never allowed to win, order is restored, the Brothers, with the help of the Attendant Spirit and Sabrina the nymph, free the Lady, and the whole group return from allegory into real life on 29 September, 1634.

Oh yes, and I do love the candy. :-)


[1] Pronounced “sow-en.”

[2] I met this beloved children’s poet when I was five or so, he signed my copy of Tyrannosaurus Was a Beast and drew a picture of the “Leslie-a-saurus.” Then I met him a second time when I was 20 as he was a family friend of my boyfriend at the time!

[3] Some would say overcommercialized

No comments: