All Hallowed Evening
Whether you celebrate Celtic New Year’s Eve [Samhain], the evening before All Saints Day [Halloween], or the posting of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses in 1517 [Reformation Day], have a happy one.
Wikipedia does its normally thorough job of covering all of the bases on the holidays that share October 31st.
These are my remembrances of a traditional American Halloween.
In the Celtic/Anglo-Saxon tradition there was a ritual placation on the evening before All Saints Day. People made offerings to evil spirits to quiet them before the celebration of the Holy Day. It was a kind of insurance. The priests said there were no spirits, but it couldn’t hurt to make a little offering just in case the priests were wrong and the folk lore was right. This changed into an excuse for games. If some expected mischief, others were more than willing to provide it, often exacting small revenges for perceived injuries.
In its continuing evolution in the United States we ended up with Halloween, which I personally preferred to Christmas as a child. There were too many adult things involved with Christmas, and while the toys were nice, the food was better, from a child’s point of view, at Halloween.
My earliest remembered Halloweens were in Hamilton, New York. A village surrounded by farms that is the location of Colgate University. The University is a collection of 19th Century ivy-covered stone buildings dominating the hill in the village. The administration building was constructed like a castle with round turrets scattered about the multiple rectangles of stone. There was a lake with swans and ducks in permanent residence, who had their own “gingerbread house” when ice claimed the waters in the dead of winter.
There were trees everywhere: maples, oaks, elms, birches, and a few refugee pines. While the “greening” of the village in Spring was nice, it was the time around Halloween that I liked the best. As if in protest of the coming gray scale of Winter, the trees threw all of their energies into an explosion of color before they shed their leaves to await the return of the Sun. From the brightest of yellow down to the deepest red, no member of that slice of the spectrum was left without representation. The trees were ablaze as if enacting a ritual self-immolation to remind the animals that the warmth of the Sun would return.
Christmas was about secrets and weather reports: boxes you weren’t allowed to go near, and would the snow ease up enough for this or that relative to visit. Halloween was open to all, even children.
The apples, McIntoshes, were ripe, but as good as they were, they were made even better by being dipped in caramel or red cinnamon sugar syrup that hardened. Popcorn was formed into balls, held together with a molasses and sugar “glue”. Fudge was not a single confection, but a class that varied from kitchen to kitchen, with each mother adding her own secret ingredients. The total range of cookies could never be remembered by a child, only the impression of butter, sugar, and flour enhanced by fruit, chocolate, and nuts.
The best part was not simply collecting, but the open permission to eat as much as you wanted. No guilt, no plate cleaning, just enjoy.
For the mind of a child raised on the Saturday serials it was obvious that a disguise was necessary as you were pulling a “heist”, stealing “goodies” from every house in the neighborhood. By sundown you had collected enough that you were sure that your “horde” would last for years.
Almost as important as the single day, Halloween marked the beginning of the season when the heat of oven was a welcome addition to the kitchen. Once again the cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and nutmeg would be released to permeate the house. Local apples and cherries would rest in their rightful place inside pastry. This was the beginning of months of cookies, brownies, kuchen [like a pound cake with apples or cherries], pies, and cakes – all of the essentials that had been missing during the warmer months.
These days, where it is celebrated at all, it is commercial candy in childproof wrappers that is grudgingly meted out and must be x-rayed before consumption.
The disguises are “store bought” and tacky, nothing that could match the imagination of mothers under pressure who owned and could use sewing machines. Of course there was always the carefully preserved sheet in the back of the linen closet with the two strategic patches that could be removed if a mother ran out of time and/or energy. My older brother had a rather elaborate panther suit that was made from black velvet curtains.
Our house in Hamilton had once been a funeral home and there were trunks filled with that kind of thing left in the attic. It was some time before my Mother figured out that what she had taken for, and used as a breakfast nook, had been the table used for moving coffins to and from the hearse. There was a large square window at the end of the built-in table that was hinged on the side and looked out to the driveway. Our house was very popular for adult Halloween parties because of its former status.
Children today will never know what a real Halloween was like, and they are poorer for it. Some people just don’t want anyone to have a good time. These “harvest festivals” aren’t fooling anyone.