That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
– William Shakespeare
Today happens to be Halloween (2018). Let’s try to understand what this (very interesting) holiday is about.
If you’re interested in how ideas and customs evolve, you should probably watch the History Channel’s production: ‘The Real Story of Halloween’ –
(I intend to draw upon it quite considerably, here.)
The ancient Celts divided the year into – the Light Half … and the Dark Half. And, in the fall, this transition was observed by (what they called) – Samhain … [which is pronounced “Souwen”, which starts off like you’re going to say “south”]. And they believed that at this time of the year, the “veil” between our world and the spirit worlds was at its thinnest. There were many stories about spirits (including the dead) wandering into our realm … or about regular people wandering into the spirit world, and (even) getting lost there.
These people lived mainly by agriculture. They always did their best to grow enough food, so that they could survive the winter.
Harvest-Time was (naturally) associated with Death … because – soon after the harvest, the plants themselves died. It happened every year with the onset of winter.
And also, the people themselves entered the Dark Time (winter) with hopes of Survival. Whatever food-stores they were able to put aside … these would see them through the winter … or they would not. There was no way to go out and get more. So – knowing the (very real) possibility of death (in the Dark) from simple starvation … meant that the harvest time was always associated with Death Lurking – (the prospect of death).
We humans are wonderfully symbolic. We are highly susceptible and attuned to symbols and myths (symbolic stories). Mmm?
Well, Shakespeare (in the epigram) points out the connection between death and sleep (which he refers to as “rest”). So, (for us humans) – the sleep (of a single night) … as well as the Rest Time that our whole world (seasonally) goes through – (the Dark Time, or Winter) … these (both) become metaphors for Death.
Ernest Becker, in his (Pulitzer Prize) book – “The Denial of Death” notes – that we have an expression – “Holy Terror”. Well, he says – that TERROR is always HOLY. Terror is that special feeling we have … when confronted with Death.
[There may be many things which horrify us. But Horror is extreme ‘disgust’, Mmm?] Whereas … the Face of Death itself – this induces TERROR.]
We have many fears. (And, of Death – we are Terrified.) But our ‘normal’ mode of dealing with these fears – is to turn away from them. (As Mark Twain says – ‘Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.’)
On Halloween, however … we have evolved customs which allow US – to put on the Face of Death. WE pretend to be those things we fear the most. WE become the Boogieman. WE become unruly and mischievous spirits. We become the Grim Reaper (death itself). (And so on.) And thus, we make sport of our fears.
This is worth something, don’t you think?
And – how did these customs come about?
It turns out that the Christian Church had quite a hand in it. The church regarded Paganism to be ‘the enemy’ (reasoning that the pagan beliefs must have been instigated by the Devil … and so, must be evil).
The Church was (clearly) aware of ‘the Great War of Ideas’, and they participated in it quite consciously and deliberately. They realized that the Pagan customs and observances could not be gotten rid of easily. If they found ‘ignorant’ people worshiping a tree, they would consecrate that tree to Jesus Christ, and tell the people to continue to worship the tree as they had been. If they came across a pagan temple, they would tear it down, and ON THE SAME SITE erect a Christian Church.
Knowing they could not (simply) eradicate pagan observances, they would co-opt them. This is what happened with the observance of Samhain. The church declared Nov. 1st to be “All Saints Day” (or All Hallows Day) … and then soon declared Nov. 2nd to be All Souls Day.
The day before All Hallows Day was called All Hallows Evening (or All Hallows Eve, or All Hallows E’en), which became ‘Halloween’.
In the 16th century (well after the Dark Ages) there arose a Witch panic in Europe. Witch hunting devolved into quite the Industry. Eventually, if you were to report (turn in) a certain neighbor as a Witch (and she were to be tried and convicted of witchcraft … and consequently drowned or hanged or burned)… you might well end up with a portion of her estate!
Our (still used) phrase – ‘the third degree’ comes from the 3rd round of torture (with its highly specialized tools … the application of which invariably brought about [the desired] ‘confession’)
If you have not already seen Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” … you should. (The 1996 film stars Daniel Day-Lewis & Winona Ryder.) It’s about a witch trial (in Salem, Massachusetts) in 1692.
The Witch (that is – a stereotypical version of the Witch) has of course become indispensable to our modern-day Halloween.
The tradition of Jack-O-Lanterns is quite interesting. But I think I’ll let you watch the video for that.
On Nov. 5th, 1605 – a pro-catholic terrorist, by the name of Guy Fawkes attempted to blow up the House of Lords. (and for this he was tried & executed)
And this was close enough to Halloween, that these two became associated. Guy Fawkes night is still observed in England.
The American Civil War saw the death of 620,000 soldiers (a number nearly equal to the losses of all our other wars combined). And many of these (civil war) deaths were ‘unknown’ (the bodies remained unidentified). This was very Hard to Take. And this culture-wide event brought about a marked increase in the telling of Ghost Stories (many of which were about the ‘dead’ returning home.)
So, ‘ghost stories’ (which had been with us [at least] since the Ancient Celts) became much more popular after the Civil War.
By around 1900 American artists began to combine the main elements of Halloween, and portray them visually – witches, black cats, cauldrons, bats, ghosts, Jack-O Lanterns.
The first third of the 20th century saw a considerable amount of Halloween pranks and vandalism. (Due, considerably, to the rowdy Scottish & Irish [young male] immigrants.) Pranksters would remove gates … and livestock would escape. They would remove front steps from houses, so that when people came out, they would hurt themselves. Stones broke windows. Arson.
The Halloween of 1933 became known as “Black Halloween”. This was during the Great Depression; and people could hardly afford to make the repairs, clean up, and rebuild.
It became clear (especially to property owners) that Halloween needed to change its ways. It would have to be brought out of the dark and into the light … into the main-stream of the society.
So adults came up with the idea of ‘buying off the pranksters’. Offering them treats – of popcorn balls, and candied apples, etc.
A little before 1930, paper Halloween costumes were being manufactured and retailed to the public. Then (because of injuries due to flammability) more durable costumes followed … along with MASKS.
With the participation of Movies and Television, Halloween began to morph very quickly.
It is now a major Cultural Phenomenon.
The phrase “Trick or Treat” is really fairly new.
Some other cultures have recently adopted our (American) Halloween.
A note I received today from Ukraine began – “Сладость или гадость?” ( [Sladost’ ili gadost’?] … Sweetness or meanness?)
… and one from Russia, which began – “Сладость или… шалость?” ([Sladost’ ili… shalost’?] … Sweetness or … prank?)
Of course, if you have not yet seen the (delightful) film – “Coco” (Disney/PIXAR, 2017) … you should.
We ‘Americans’ can benefit from the Mexican culture. It is less materialistic, and the people are less alienated. Their ‘Day of the Dead’ festivities are friendly and humane … more like a family reunion. Deceased family members are still regarded as valuable (and loved) members of the family. We people from ‘the north’ tend to fear cemeteries … and the dead. Mexicans still (simply) love their dead relatives.
Americans might put up a (plain) white cross – where a relative died on the highway. Mexicans do that too … but they will (lavishly) decorate those markers.
[Here, I will (again) refer you to (and recommend) the film – “Bella” (by Alejandro Gomez Monteverde, 2006). If you are awake, you will discern what it has to say about our two – (the ‘American’ … and the Hispanic cultures). It is based on a true story.
We Americans do not realize how (severely) alienated we are.]
I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.
I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.
I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.
– ANNE SEXTON
If you’re feeling hardy & well rested, you may want to watch the film – “Brother of Sleep” (1995); but be warned – this is, in places, a rough movie … not a Disney movie. And definitely not for children.