Rants & Essays
Ooh, I'm Very Scared
By Julian Draven
Autumn is the time when the world begins to die. Trees lose
their leaves, animals end their life cycles, and people bury themselves in
holiday depression and stave off the cold with egg nog. It's been this way
since the dawn of time. Fall has always signaled the start of the most
desperate time of year for mankind, the time when one must prepare for a harsh
winter, a killing frost, and Halloween. The time when we celebrate the simple
act of dying.
Halloween nowadays isn't as grim as it used to be. Children
play in the streets, going door to door in search of candy delights sure to
please the young palate and upset the young stomach. The crass commercialism of
most holidays doesn't really seem to be able to infect Halloween. Instead, it
seems to add to the mystique and creepiness surrounding the holiday. Most of
the nation's school systems don't actively promote Halloween, and this spirit
seems to infect most big business when it comes to the usual selling campaigns
that spring up around holidays. The endeavors that are most likely to succeed
around Halloween are the grass-roots ones - the local haunted house, or the
Halloween party. For this reason, Halloween seems to have remained, over the
centuries, a holiday for the common folk.
Halloween wasn't always called Halloween. There are many
different names for it, and the most curious mystery surrounding October 31st
is the fact that so many disparate cultures choose this time of year to worship
those things creepy and dead. The ancient Egyptians worshipped their dead on
this day, as well as the pre-Spanish peoples in Central America, but the
holiday we know as Halloween has its roots in a decidedly European culture.
October 31st has always been the traditional start of the
Celtic New Year. The Celts called it 'Samhain', which means 'summer's end' in
Gaelic. The Celts didn't have four seasons as we do. Rather, they had only two
seasons, summer and winter. End of winter was marked by Beltane, the
celebration of life and fertility. Samhain was Beltane's dark and brooding
sister, a macabre indulgence in death and sterility. Samhain is pronounced
(depending on where you're from) as 'sow-in' (in Ireland), or 'sow-een' (in
Wales), or 'sav-en' (in Scotland). When viewing the word, most Americans have
an urge to pronounce it 'sam-hane', which most Gaelic folk will laugh at.
Samhain was the day on which the veil between the spirit
world and the real world was at its weakest. Souls of the dead, supernatural
monsters, and just plain icky things were said to wander around on this day.
Samhain existed outside of ordinary time to the Celts - it was a perfect time
to do divinations and readings of the future, because you could look at any
point in time from this day. Many women attempted to divine the names of their
future husbands by placing chestnuts on the hearth of their fires. They would
place one chestnut for each suitor, and bless it with the incantation "If he
loves me, pop and fly. If he doesn't, burn and die."
Many of today's traditions date from the early Celts. The
tradition of dressing up in costume comes from this source. In the beginning,
it was actually cross-dressing that was encouraged, inspiring men and women to
dress in clothes of the opposite sex for a night to experience life as the
other sex. This tradition didn't have much of an effect in Scotland, where men
usually wore colorful kilts. Later, as the Christian Church appropriated the
holiday, costuming became a more important part of the holiday because of the
otherworldly aspects of the day.
Samhain was the date on which the spirit world and the real
world melded, in a sense. For this one day, spirits of the deceased could come
back and visit their families. The huge sidhe mounds were thrown open, and
their corridors lined with torches so that the dead could find their way back
to their loved ones. Extra plates were set out so that relatives could enjoy a
meal with their desiccated family members. It was a thoroughly morbid affair, a
strange worship of the specter of death who will eventually claim us all.
When the Church attempted to spread its influence throughout
the UK, it met with resistance from the Celts living there. In order to win
over the natives, the church decided to adopt several holidays of the natives
as their own. One of these holidays was Samhain.
Samhain was celebrated by the Church as All Hallows Eve, a
pre-celebration of All Saints Day. The souls of the dead were no longer
worshipped, but only those that were truly holy (and dead) were revered on this
day. Try as it might, the Church couldn't get the notions of a thin veil
between the land of the dead and of the living out of the minds of the natives.
So they adapted several of the traditions into their holiday.
Costuming became a way to hide yourself among the dead. To
the Church, shambling mounds of rotting relatives were an obscenity, and
something to be feared. To this end, they used the costuming as a fun way for
the natives to celebrate, eventually convincing them that the purpose was to
hide themselves from the spirits, specters, and monsters that haunted the night
world of Samhain. Ghosts and goblins wandered the countryside, along with those
in costume. How could one tell if that was a person behind a mask or a monster?
You couldn't and this added to the mystique of the holiday.
Trick or Treating was another tradition that was bastardized
by the Church. Originally, trick or treating was a thoroughly adult affair,
with the treat more often than not being a potent alcoholic beverage. The
Church frowned upon adults getting drunk and causing general mayhem, so they
slowly converted the tradition into an event for the kids.
There are others. Bobbing for apples recalls a Celtic
baptismal rite that was often performed on Samhain. A blindfolded individual
would be forced into the water and ritually cleansed of bad influences, often
while his or her hands were tied behind their back. Another tradition that has
endured has been that of the jack o' lantern.
Travelers in earlier times carved hideous faces out of
European gourds to carry with them on their travels. When used as a lantern,
these faces would serve the purpose of scaring off the legions of dead that
wandered the night, and prevent them from taking the wielder of the lantern to
an early demise. As the tradition was brought over to the New World, the
pumpkin was found to be a much better fruit for this sort of activity, and a
tradition was born. Houses are now defended by the most hideous of visages
The amount of occult imagery that pervades Halloween is a
reflection of the culture from which it came. Many people nowadays believe that
Halloween should not be celebrated, and to that end, they have it banned from
public schools and other organizations. What these people do not realize is
that they are banning whole parts of European culture. African-Americans
celebrate their holidays with renewed vigor, and focus on remembering their
rich cultural heritage. Caucasian Americans have the same richness of culture
and diversity of background. It's ironic that their past is frowned upon, and
treated as an object of derision because a small minority perceive it as evil
Despite attempts to stamp it out, Halloween is more popular
today than it ever has been. Haunted houses abound, and ghosts and goblins roam
the night promising soaped windows and toilet papered yards to all who do not
bear treats. Everywhere the morbid spirit of Halloween fills the air. So, in
reverence to those long and freshly dead, lift a glass. The dead will thank
We like to think
that the success and harmony
enjoyed by our twisted little amusement
is a microcosmic manifestation
of the greed and bloodlust
that made America great.
©1998 Julian Draven
Creation date - August
Reprinted from the Death Jester's Lunchbox