Sunday, October 30, 2011

Tomorrow’s Halloween—Let’s Review

Trick or Treat Costume in 1950's Chicago 
Note—This first appeared on October 30, 2011 in this blog.

I am guessing that readers of this blog are probably more familiar with the origins and development of Halloween than most folks.  But for review:  

Halloween traces its origin to the Celtic harvest festival Samhain.  It was one of the four festivals that fell between the Solstices and Equinoxes which celebrated the natural turning of the seasons.  Samhain was particularly important because it was the gate time to the death and starvation season of winter, as well a time to celebrate the recent harvest.  This association with the death of winter, also extended to the spirit world, which was considered to be closer to the mortal plane than at any other time of the year.  The Celtic pagan priests—the Druids—marked the occasion with the lighting of bon fires and gifts of food and drink for the spirits of the dead.  Some consider it also analogous to a New Year’s Celebration launching a new cycle of the seasons.  It was popularly celebrated by the peasantry long after the Druids passed and well into the Christian era.

Too popular to squelch, the Catholic Church  co-opted the custom as All Souls Day and many of the pagan customs continued to be observed on the evening before the holy day—which came to be known as All Hallows Eve, or in Scots  Hallowe'en.

Immigrants from the British Isles brought some of their customs with them, but Halloween does not seem to have been widely celebrated.  The Puritans spent a lot of time trying to squelch May Pole dances associated with the spring Celtic festival of Bealtaine, but for all of their obsession with witchcraft, usually associated with those who continued to keep the old pagan traditions, there is no evidence of suppressing   Samhain or Halloween.

In fact there is little mention of Halloween at all until the very latest years of the 19th Century when a few scattered newspapers began reporting ritual begging on Halloween by masked youths accompanied by threats and acts of vandalism.  Customs for observing the holiday varied regionally.  Parties with games such as bobbing for apples and the telling of ghost stories were fairly common.  The custom of “trick or treating” seems to have spread slowly.  What progress it was making was largely interrupted by the Depression years when families had little extra money to spend on treats and by the sugar rationing of World War II.

Trick or treating was still far from universal until after World War II when it became a topic of popular radio programs like the Jack Benny Show and Ozzie and Harriet.  A Halloween episode in the movie Meet Me in Saint Louis was one of the first portrayals of children’s customs associated with the holiday on the screen.  In 1947 the popular children’s magazine Jack and Jill published a story on the custom of Halloween begging and described it in detail, spreading the practice widely and with amazing uniformity.  By 1951 the practice was wide spread enough that a Philadelphia woman, Mary Emma Allison and the Reverend Clyde Allison decided to channel the energy to constructive purposes by introducing Trick or Treat for UNICEF to support the work of the United Nation’s international children’s work.

By the mid 1950’s with the strong support of the candy companies and the introduction of cheap masks and pajama style costumes for children, the practice of trick or treating had become ubiquitous and had even taken on a feeling of a long standing practice.

What started with ghost stories and the like, soon spread to all types of horror, fueled by the growing popularity of increasingly violent Hollywood films.  Gore became and more and more common theme and showing horror films for the whole month of October in theaters and on TV was standard by the early 1970’s.

About the same time the first generation of trick or treaters grew up but continued to enjoy the dress-up and parties of Halloween.  It is, year by year, an increasingly popular adult holiday, incorporating many of the features of various masquerade festivals with macabre twist. 

Halloween is now the second most widely celebrated holiday in the United States and is an economic powerhouse, generating sales second only to Christmas.  Popular American media have spread the customs of trick or treating and celebrating gore around the world, often supplanting truly ancient celebrations of Halloween in the Celtic countries.

The resurgence of Christian Fundamentalism in the U.S. has led to a counter movement to strip the “Satanic” festival from public schools and the wider community.  Although they get it wrong—there was never any connection between Satanism and Halloween—the fundies, ironically, at least recognized a religious tradition hiding under the commercial hoopla.  At the same time re-invented “traditional” paganism like Wicca, one of the most rapidly growing religious movements of the last twenty years, has striven to recapture the nearly lost significance of the holiday’s roots in Samhain.

Friday, October 28, 2011

New Poetry—How Black the Night

The other day I noted that it was the mutual birthday of Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath, who had not much in common except that they wrote poetry and died young each in a kind of pitiful squalor.  It was also the night of a New Moon and where I was, at least, a howling storm of darkness. 

Writing poetry about poets, both infinitely more gifted than I, is an act of terminal hubris for which I shall be justly punished.  But here it is anyway.

How Black the Night
October 26, 2011—New Moon, 
Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath

Even the New Moon hides behind the howling clouds. 

Happy Birthday Dylan—
Why did you not
            rage, rage against the dying of the light
            in that pool of your own black vomit
            at the Chelsea?

Happy Birthday Sylvia—
The same year, you dewy goddess,
            you emptied the medicine vials
            and crawled under your mother’s porch.

Not ships passing in the night,
            but traversing the same black ocean
            away from home
            to something else.

Did you find what you were looking for
            in worship and whiskey,
            in broken love and madness?

As Dylan moldered under Laugharne,
            Lady Lazarus, you wrote.
   Is an art, like everything else.
   I do it exceptionally well.

But laying your head in a oven
             is no art
             and posthumous poems
             no resurrection.

How black the night, dead poets.
            how black the night?

—Patrick Murfin

Thursday, October 27, 2011

From Woodstock to Chicago With Love—Delivering Aid to Occupy Chicago

Carrie MacDonald and the Rev.  Jennifer Slade with two carloads of supplies for Occupy Chicago

Lisa Jacobsen with her PT Cruiser loaded
Tom Jacobsen, Carrie and Thomas of Occupy Chicago.
Carrie with the young son of a friend who inspired her  efforts and other Occupy Chicago participants.
This Monday members of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Woodstock loaded up two cars with supplies for Occupy Chicago and headed into the city. Members of the congregation’s Social Justice Committee gathered the supplies on just four days notice at the suggestion of church member Carrie MacDonald

Lisa Jacobsen described the welcome in Chicago:
Occupy Chicago was amazed when the two cars pulled up at LaSalle and Jackson. I jumped out of the car and grabbed the arm of a tall man who looked like he was “in charge.” I said, “We're from Woodstock, Illinois, and we have two car loads of supplies for you from our church members.”
Within minutes, Thomas took charge and got us over to Grace Place at 637 South Dearborn, common worship space for three religious communities: Episcopalian, Quaker Friends, and a Jewish Synagogue. They have been provided space and services for Occupy Chicago from its inception. As we unloaded the cars and filled up cart after cart we started talking with Thomas, an unemployed cook who's been at OccupyChicago since the third day.
There were 130 arrests the night before we arrived, and many of the people were still in jail; the bail…was more than double from the first arrests.  [They] were feeling distressed about the Mayor’s refusal to grant them a permanent space in Grant Park and the ‘hassles by the police that were increasing at LaSalle and Jackson… But when they heard that a congregation in Woodstock, Illinois – a place they'd never heard of – had been tracking them on the internet and collecting food and supplies, it was a big boost to their spirits. I started to cry as I grabbed Thomas, gave him a hug and told him “thank you so much for what you're doing!”

MacDonald had wished she could join the protestors at Occupy Chicago, a part of the growing national movement inspired by Occupy Wall Street.  The son of a close friend was among those who have been on the scene since the beginning.  But Carrie is the mother of a two month old girl and an active two year old boy. 

Unsatisfied with following events in the news and signing internet petitions, Carrie decided to help out by collecting donations of much needed supplies for the protestors and delivering them to Chicago.

I want the folks who are down there protesting day in and day out to know that there are many of us out here who are behind them 100%.  Even if we can't be there physically for whatever reason, we are with them in spirit,” she said.

She enlisted the support of the Social Justice Committee at her church.

Interim minister the Rev. Jennifer Slade, said Unitarian Universalists around the country have been responding to the growing movement.  She cited a statement by Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) President Peter Morales, “Unitarian Universalism embodies a long tradition of working for economic justice and workers’ rights. Today is another opportunity for us to live our faith, and the Occupy protests are a first step on the road to repairing our country.

The committee gathered donations of non-perishable food, blankets, sleeping bags, warm clothing, batteries and other supplies listed as needed by Occupy Chicago on its web site.

On Monday morning Rev. Slade was on hand to see the mission off and accompanying MacDonald to Chicago were Tom and Lisa Jacobsen

The trip was such a success that another is being considered in November.  Next time the Social Justice Committee will invite public donations at a time and a location to be announced.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Summer of ’68 Chicago Style—In the Foggy, Foggy Dew

The Great Skip Williamson captured the zeitgeist perfectly.
Note:  Re-posted in a slightly different from The Third City

Monday Night

Despite the dismissive attitude, I was eager to rejoin the main protests that evening.  After slapping together a quick dinner of hot dogs and beans for the few kids not already out, I headed for Lincoln Park where everyone expected another big confrontation.

It was a chilly, damp night and pitch dark by the time I made the park on foot.  A thick fog rolled in off the Lake.  The later it got, the thicker it got.  There was no program, no performances, or speech making, at least where I circulated.  The crowd grew, milled around, and tried occasional chants. 

The enemy—the police—were invisible behind those fog banks.   Some folks began to build barricades of park benches, picnic tables and trash cans.  That made me nervous, I moved away from them.

Not long before 11 o’clock, my attention was drawn to drumming and a flickering fire away from the main crowd.  It was further south in the park, close to where La Salle Street turned east-west and formed the edge.  My guess is that we were not far from Cardinal Cody’s mansion.  It was hard to tell.  And my memory might be faulty.

As I got close enough to see what was going on, I found a knot of maybe a couple of hundred people.  At the center, sitting cross legged and looking serene, was Alan Ginsberg chanting “Om, Om, Om, Om, Om Mani Padme Om.”  As he droned, the tension seemed to drain a bit among those surrounding him even as the moments to a sure assault ticked by.

Ginsberg was there with a posse of writers, supposedly as observers and journalists, not demonstrators.  With him that night were the Beat novelist and junkie William Burroughs, the French playwright and novelist Jean Genet—always described in the press as the “hoodlum poet—and the American satirist Terry Southern.  Of course, I could not have picked any of them out of a line up.  But Ginsberg was easy to recognize.

I learned later from a story that Southern published in Esquire that the band had arrived in the park not long before me after a day of drinking.

Despite the calming effect of Ginsberg droning chant, tension rose as 11 PM passed without apparent police action.  I’m not sure how much time passed, but eventually I decided to head back to the Movement Center thinking that maybe the cops had decided to pass up a battle in the fog.

Once again I was wrong. Not long after I was out of the area, teargas mixed with the fog and formations of police attacked the makeshift barricades, clubs swinging.  Ginsberg and company evidently eluded the police, but under cover of that fog some of the worst beatings of the week were administered that night.  Press members, especially photographers, were singled out and attacked so successfully that I know of no pictures taken in the park that night after the attack began. Eventually the cops once again pushed demonstrators out of the park and into the streets of Old Town.  They continued to fire tear gas in the neighborhood.  When local residents began to offer shelter to fleeing protestors, cops stormed front porches and beat them senseless on their own doorsteps. 
For the second night in a row I had missed the main battle.  When the kids straggled into the Movement Center with fresh horror stories, I began to feel like a deserter under fire.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Geoffrey Chaucer—The Man Who Invented English Literature?

Chaucer in an  illuminated text of the Canterbury Tales
Way back when dirt was new and I was an exceptionally earnest high school student, we learned that before there was William Shakespeare there was Geoffrey Chaucer, period.  In those distant days students were generally assigned at least a chunk of The Canterbury Tales to read and try and decipher.  We were told it was English, but it was Greek to most of us.  I remember that after some hours of labor, I got a hazy idea of what he was writing about.

, prior to the 19th Century has long been banished from most high school curricula.  You might not even encounter Chaucer today in many introductory survey level English Lit. courses in College.  Certainly you would have to be an English major and toiling in the 200-300 level courses before you really encounter him.

Perhaps things are better for Geoffrey in England. One hopes so.

I bring this up because October 25 mark’s the anniversary of Chaucer’s passing in 1400.  He was then the resident of the Inne of the Shrews in Greenwich.  After a life time as a mostly successful courtier he had been of favor and broke, but was recently restored to Royal favor.  But he may have been murdered by those who did not take kindly to his portrayal of the clergy, or so some stories have it.  None the less, he was respectable enough to be buried in an unimportant corner of Westminster Abby.  In later years other literary men asked to be interred near him in what eventually became the revered Poet’s Corner.

Today his fans celebrate his life on his death day because no one knows exactly when he was born.  He was born about 1342 or ’43 in London.  He came from a Norman family whose name originally meant shoemaker.  But the family fortunes had risen.  His father was a successful wine merchant and minor courtier—deputy to the King’s Butler.  Nothing is known of his education except that it was quite good.  By the time young Geoffrey was ready to enter the service of the noble and highborn himself at about age 13 he could already read and write French, Latin, and Italian.

That career started with an appointment to the household of Elizabeth, Countess of Ulster and Prince Lionel in 1357.  Two years later he was a soldier in France fighting for King Edward III in the 100 Years War.  He was evidently a good and valuable soldier because after being captured by the French he was paroled under the terms of the Treaty of Brétigny in 1360.  The King himself and other courtiers contributed to raising the substantial ransom of £16.  It was during his presumably not too-uncomfortable imprisonment that Chaucer completed, according to some sources his first literary work, Romaunt of the Rose, a translation from the French into the Anglo-Norman language of the court.

Around 1337 Chaucer apparently married very well indeed.  His wife, or at least the mother of his two sons, was Philippa Roe, the sister of the future wife of John of Gaunt, third surviving son of Edward III.  Due to this happy circumstance he enjoyed the support and patronage of the Prince as long as he lived.

In 1369 he would re-work that earlier Romaunt of the Rose into vernacular English, what we now know as Middle English in The Book of the Duchess, dedicated to his sister-in-law after her death.

Such connection earned him more important and lucrative appointments.  From 1338-78 he traveled extensively in Europe on a number of diplomatic and commercial assignments.  He was said to have met the Italian Poet Petrarch on one such trip.  He was also exposed to Dante’s Divine Comedy, which was written in vernacular Italian rather than Latin.  This was supposedly an inspiration for Chaucer to work in vernacular English but as we have seen, he was already working in that language.

Back in England he was awarded the very lucrative post of Comptroller of the Customs and Subside of Wools, Skins, and Tanned Hides for the Port of London, just the kind of position where money could not help but fill the purse of a poor, but honest public servant.  He survived a charge of rape by Cecile Champaigne but was able to get her to withdraw her suit after a hefty private settlement. 

He could survive scandal, but not the shifting sands of politics.  With John of Gaunt out of favor, so was he.  He lost his post and free housing.  But he moved to Kent, got a minor sinecure as Post Master, and eventually was elected to Parliament.  Away from London and the demands of court Chaucer devoted himself more and more to literature.  He composed Troilus and Criseyde, a long poem based on a Trojan romance by the Italian poet Boccaccio.  

When his wife died and with John out of favor, Chaucer was sued for debt.  Several friend and acquaintances were executed.  But in 1389 John returned to power and influence over his nephew Richard II, who in turn favored the poet with a new appointment as Clerk of the King's Works responsible for the upkeep and repair governmental buildings in and around London.  He was the beneficiary of Royal gifts and pensions in the 1390’s.

It was during this period that he did most of his work on his magnum opus, The Canterbury Tales.  The loose collection was said to have been inspired in some ways by Dante’s journeys through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise.  But Chaucer’s tales were grounded in the real, even mundane world.  

A group of 30 pilgrims gather for a journey to the grave and shrine of Thomas à Becket in an Inn much like the one in which Chaucer himself resided.  It was a remarkably inhomogeneous group cutting across the rigid class lines of England at the time.  Included in the group and telling their stories at the behest of the inn keeper were a knight, a monk, a prioress, a plowman, a miller, a merchant, a clerk, and an oft-widowed wife from Bath.  The stories, some of them borrowed from earlier tales and sources, were often humorous and sometimes bawdy. 

Chaucer never lived to complete the work.  Perhaps because he was interrupted by another episode of political intrigue. 

After Chaucer’s patron John died, Richard II disinherited his son, Henry of Bolingbrook.  Henry returned from exile in France in 1399 to supposedly re-claim his lands and titles.  He quickly gathered a large army against the unpopular king.  He deposed Richard and seized the crown.  Chaucer was reportedly in Henry’s service at the time, ever loyal to the line of John of Gaunt.  As Henry IV the new king rewarded such loyal service with a generous increase in his annuity.  

But he never received either lands or title and remained until he died the next year, as he had lived, a commoner with uncommon connections to Royalty.

For those who may have forgotten—and for those who have never seen it, here is a sample of Chaucer’s most famous work:

The Miller's Prologue

Heere folwen the wordes bitwene the Hoost and the Millere

      Whan that the Knyght had thus his tale ytoold,

In al the route ne was ther yong ne oold

That he ne seyde it was a noble storie,

And worthy  for to drawen to memorie;

And namely the gentils everichon.

Oure Hooste lough , and swoor, "So moot I gon,

This gooth aright; unbokeled is the male,

Lat se now who shal telle another tale,

For trewely the game is wel bigonne.

Now telleth on, sir Monk, if that ye konne

Somwhat to quite with the Knyghtes tale."

The Millere that for dronken was al pale,

So that unnethe upon his hors he sat,

He nolde avalen neither hood ne hat,

Ne abyde no man for his curteisie,

But in Pilates voys he gan to crie,

And swoor, "By armes and by blood and bones,

I kan a noble tale for the nones,

With which I wol now quite the Knyghtes tale."

Oure Hooste saugh that he was dronke of ale,

And seyde, "Abyd, Robyn, my leeve brother,

Som bettre man shal telle us first another,
Abyd, and lat us werken thriftily."…