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All Hallowed Evening

Jack o' lanternWhether 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.

3 comments

1 Steve Bates { 10.31.12 at 9:23 am }

A grand bit of nostalgia, Bryan, well-told!

Once again, I have failed in my years-long intention to collect Halloween decorations in storage and put them up at Christmas. For one thing, the Halloween decorations have grown more expensive, elaborate… and large. On our block, there’s a gigantic inflatable black cat that glowers at you and turns its head side-to-side. But most of the decorations have a hard plastic look about them, a straight-out-of-the-box look that makes me pine for the Halloweens of my childhood. Hey! Pine… box… I’ve got an idea!

Actually we’re not celebrating this year. Stella is home from work, sick with a bad cold, and for some reason is averse to dozens of kiddies trooping to the front door. This neighborhood’s got ‘em; in two recent years, we’ve run out of goodies within an hour or so of sunset.

2 Kryten42 { 10.31.12 at 1:40 pm }

I remember celebrating when I was a kid. We spent more than a week preparing, Mom & Gran would make the costumes, and would make candied apples and other treats… yeah, good memories. :)

Thanks Bryan for your story. And sadly, like everything else now, you are correct about the commercialization. Like Christmas and Easter, Halloween was a time that brought families together in preparation. Now it’s just a mad rush to the stores to but everything, and it’s all crap. *shrug*

Sorry to hear about Stella Steve! I hope she get’s better quickly, and you will both be well.

Many years ago, I was house-sitting and looking after my oldest friend’s 9 yo daughter. Several days before Halloween, I was telling her and a couple of her friends stories of my experiences as a child. :) She told me they had never celebrated Halloween! I was a little saddened but unsurprised (my friend lived an a wealthy and exclusive suburb that most people in Melb. have never even heard of). The next day when my little friend came home from school, she was not her usual happy self. She told me that some of her friends at school were all excited about Halloween and going ‘trick-or-treating’, and she was sad that she couldn’t. I thought about it, and called her Father 9who was working overseas), and said I wanted to organise an outing for his daughter and friends, but I didn’t know many of the locals, and i didn’t think they would be very interested at all (They were mostly surgeons, Barristers, Judges, and so on). I convinced my friend to convince his neighbors that it was a real treat for the kids and would be fun for all! Over the next few days I received calls from people asking what they could do and what needed to be done! Once the ball started rolling, it became an avalanche! It was all I could do to keep it simple and fun for the kids! (People with money tend to go nuts when they latch onto something!) I had never seen my little friend look so happy and excited! So we organised costumes, decorations, treats, and of course, tricks over the next week. I ended up marching around the suburb with 24 little *monsters*! I organised them into groups of 3 so they all wouldn’t overwhelm every house in the block! ;) :lol: Everyone had such a great time that it became a regular annual event. See… even wealthy stick-in-the-mud’s can be convinced to let their hair down and have fun, for their kid’s anyway. ;)

I got the nest prize of all… lot’s of big hugs from lot’s of happy kids! Especially my little friend and Goddaughter (who is 23 now and would probably cringe at this!) Is there anything better? :D

I miss that time. Life was good then. :)

3 Bryan { 10.31.12 at 10:52 pm }

I really miss the little kids in costume coming to the door, they were an absolute hoot. They were creators of the LOLCat language.

Tonight it was the ‘harvest festival’ at the fundie church down the block, another traffic jam as all of the parents and kids who were definitely not celebrating Halloween parked wherever they felt like, and Sheriff deputies helping them cross the road.

It used to be that people depended on their imaginations to create fun, but today everyone depends on their wallets. We are losing the ability to create, and can only mimic.