Ways of Seeing: Halloween is more than tricks and treats
Halloween this year was wet but warm, so despite the ever-changing drizzle, downpour, and showers, trick-or-treaters were out in force. I live in Bristol village right on the circuit that everyone coming into town trick-or-treats at, so we always get at least six hundred people. We always run out of candy before we run out of trick-or-treaters, which leaves us retreating into the house extinguishing lights as we go. Halloween candy is quite an investment, so we have to hand it out frugally. None of this frivolous “grab a handful!” or ‘unattended-candy-bowl-on-the-porch’ at our house.
Halloween has become one of my favorite holidays. We don’t do a ton of decorations. I don’t even dress up. I’m not sure why I like it so much. I don’t have any clear memories of it as a child. Perhaps it is the freedom people seem to feel running around the darkened streets incognito. Maybe it is all the whimsical costumes parents and teens show up in, their inner child peeking through. Or it could be that I get all of my daughter’s Reese’s, as she doesn’t like them.
I have always made my daughter’s costumes. I love doing it, but I am always working on it last minute, cursing my aging sewing machine and wondering if I can get away with hot glue instead. We carve a few pumpkins, search frantically for candles that still have wicks in them, and fill up a huge bowl with candy. My dad is in charge of handing out the candy as I take my daughter trick-or-treating, and despite his grumbling I think he really does enjoy it. He tries to guess kids’ costumes, but he hasn’t watched a single Harry Potter movie, so he is at a huge disadvantage.
When I lived abroad in West Africa, Halloween was one of the hardest holidays to celebrate and explain. In my ESL classes there was a unit on holidays, and when October rolled around I would spend some time trying to explain Halloween. The idea of people dressing up in costumes and going to strangers’ houses to ask for candy seems completely bizarre to many people, so I would always start with where Halloween came from to give it context.
It is widely believed that Halloween stems from the Celtic festival of Samhain. It marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the dark half of the year. It was considered a time when the barrier between the living world and the spirit world grew thin, and spirits could more easily pass between worlds. It was thought that the souls of the departed would visit their former homes, so candles would be lit for them, offerings left, and places set at the table. Fire was also used to keep spirits at bay and to hold back the darkness of winter.
Later, mumming and guising, or dressing up in costume or disguise and going house to house singing or reciting poetry for food was a way people imitated the souls of the departed and receiving offerings on their behalf. People would smear ashes from the sacred fires on their faces and threaten mischief if they were not welcomed, and they would carry carved out turnips with candles in them to ward off evil spirits.
These traditions were blended with the Christian practices of All Hallows’ Day, which is a time to honor saints and pray for the recently departed whose souls have yet to reach heaven.
Over time all these traditions have morphed into the holiday we now celebrate with carving pumpkins, dressing up as superheroes, and trick-or-treating.
I have read recently that some schools are discontinuing their Halloween celebrations. Many reasons are behind this, but one is that it might be too frightening. If you look at the origins of Halloween, it was meant to be a scary time. Costumes were meant to be frightening, but we are the ones who are supposed to be doing the scaring. Perhaps learning the traditions behind this holiday would alleviate some of this fear. If you know why people are supposed to wear scary costumes, maybe it is less scary.
Perhaps you learn that there is more to this holiday than a huge bag of candy. That said, you can be sure I’m looking forward to confiscating all of my daughter’s Reese’s next year.
Claire Corkins grew up and lives in Bristol. She studied Human Ecology at College of the Atlantic in Maine. After college she worked abroad teaching English as a second language. She currently works with her father painting houses, tiling bathrooms, building porches and fixing old windows. She hikes, reads, plays ice hockey, travels, and wishes she could wear flip flops all year round.
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