“The basis of optimism is sheer terror.”--Oscar Wilde, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’Scholars from a variety of fields including anthropology, theology, linguistics, history and literature will debate practically anything, including whether or not Halloween is merely a Christianized version of Samhain, or if it evolved independently.
As is the case in many such scholarly disagreements, they’re all being silly – the important thing about Halloween is that it is fun. We don’t mean to demean anyone’s deeply held convictions, of course, but if your deeply held convictions lead to a drab, dreary, colorless, somber life of drudgery… well, maybe you ought to consider shopping for a new set of beliefs, beliefs which include the idea that being human should be enjoyable, not miserable. There’s enough troubles that happen to us without bringing unhappiness on ourselves.
Which makes Halloween a perfect holiday, when you think about it – ghosts and ghouls and creepy-crawlies represent all the horrors of our imagination… and Halloween places all of those creepy-crawlies in an ironic and humorous context. We cringe and cower in fear on a typical Monday morning when our bosses, or supervisors, or teachers (or students), or customers, or suppliers, or whomever, load us down with a laundry list of complaints and problems with which we are ill equipped to cope. However, if we have a freaky automated rubber hand reach up at us out of a candy dish, our hearts pound with fear… but we laugh.
We laugh because we know the fear is not real, and that knowledge equips us to rise above our fears of those things which are real – it gives us the hope and courage necessary to face harsh realities, whether they be in the form of the coming of winter and desolation (oh so important to farmers for as long as there have been farmers, and even more important to hunter-gatherers before that), or more modern fears, whether of problems at work, school or in our personal lives.
Not all of the traditions associated with Halloween speak to this psychological reality, of course; some are simply festive. Candy corn, caramel apples, bonfires, costumes of all sorts (frightening and – more and more frequently – not so frightening), silly songs, silly movies, and silly decorations form the centerpiece of what is really just one extended party marking the end of summer, and the beginning of something else.
The Puritans, for example, strongly discouraged recognition of All Hallow’s Eve (the evening before All Saint’s Day) – not because of any sort of direct satanic influence, as is frequently the case among extremist fundamentalist Christians in our own era, but because the holiday was seen as essentially Catholic. (Though, to be fair, they considered Catholics little better than Satanists, but why quibble? One flavor of crazy intolerance is as good as another.)
In spite of their innate problems with All Hallow’s Eve (and associated harvest festival traditions, Celtic or otherwise)… the Puritans brought us Thanksgiving, which is nothing more than a dressed-down Protestant version of Halloween. Simple clothes and formal dining (or at least as formal as working-class families get) take the place of free-wheeling frivolity… but the basic message is the same: the time has come to give thanks for the bounty we have received, that we may be prepared for what follows.
There is plenty of room for both ways of celebrating the harvest; most people never even stop to consider the subtle tension between the perspectives offered by these two intimately related holidays – the vast majority of Americans celebrate both Halloween and Thanksgiving without giving it a second thought.
Halloween is not a uniquely American holiday, of course, but what Americans have done with the day says a lot about why it is important to us. Historian Nicholas Rogers writes that “some folklorists have detected its origins in the Roman feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and seeds, or in the festival of the dead called Parentalia,” but that “it is more typically linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain,” which comes from the Old Irish words meaning “summer’s end”.
Much of the mish-mash of American Halloween is to be expected, based simply on the idea that the American melting pot is itself a mish-mash; we are the mongrels of the world, a mix of ethnicities, races, religions, cultures, languages and traditions so diverse we often lose track even within our own families within a generation or two of just exactly who we are. It makes perfect sense, then, that what we do will not have the same degree of continuity you would find in places in the world where families have been in residence for hundreds or even thousands of years.
Is your Jack O’Lantern carved from a turnip really more authentic than one carved in a Boston Squash or some other kind of pumpkin? And even if it were, would it be any more fun? Probably not. Probably, you’d get to display your “authentic” Jack O’Lantern at the kind of party where no one else was much fun to be around, either. (But hey, that’s just us. We like candy corn, so what do we know?)
And ultimately, that is the American contribution – while many bemoan the crass commercialism of Halloween (and make no mistake, there is clearly a lot of that on display), this is missing the point. Commercialism is the manifestation of a vibrant truth, one which is not so negative: If life is a game, then whoever throws the best parties wins. We prefer the kinds of parties where everything is homemade… but make no mistake, the reason Halloween sells is because whoever makes “the stuff,” it is stuff people want. And even if life isn’t “a game,” learned optimists know that you frequently only get where you’re trying to go if you treat it like a game.
This is the optimistic American contribution to All Hallow’s Eve – some are frightened by the idea, because it smacks of the kind of licentiousness which at its worst brings us things like Detroit’s “Devil’s Night” – but that is just one extreme. At the other end of the spectrum, this spirit of freedom (best represented by the tradition of wearing costumes, and freeing our identities from our workaday selves, which, after all, are just another disguise we wear, albeit on a regular basis) helps us escape the fears and troubles which all too easily overwhelm us.
We’re a little over a month away, but the supply of pumpkins and other strangely shaped winter squash and gourds has started making its way to the vegetable stands around town. It’s almost time to break out the black and orange, string up some “ghosts” in the trees in the front yard, and hang “Witchy-Poo” on our front door. Because, you know…. fun!