Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Samhain to Halloween—The Crooked Path to Our Second Most Popular Holiday

NoteRevised and back by popular demand! 
Halloween traces its origin to the Celtic harvest festival Samhain.  It was one of the four festivals that fell between the Solstices and Equinoxes and which celebrated the natural turning of the seasons.  Samhain was particularly important because it was the gate in 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 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.
The Church symbolically casting out the Samhain celebrating Druids.  They succeeded in co-opting some customs, driving others underground or marginalizing them to isolated rural area
Too popular to squelch entirely, as with many pagan observances Catholic Church co-opted the custom as All Saints Day on November 1.   In rural regions especially Samhain customs continued to be observed on the evening before the Holy Day—which came to be known as All Hallows Eve, or Hallowe’en in Scots.
Immigrants from the British Isles brought some of their customs with them to the New World, but Halloween does not seem to have been widely celebrated colonial America.  The Puritans spent a lot of time trying to squelch other pagan customs like the 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 in American at the second half of the 19th Century.  By the 1880’s and ‘90’s greeting card companies were printing colorful post cards featuring images of witches, black cats, skeletons, and pumpkin Jack o’ Lanterns—all of the classic images associated with Halloween.  Period photos from around the turn of the 20th Century show both adults and children in costumes, most commonly some variation of witch or ghost themes.   

A popular lithographed Haloween greeting card.
A few scattered newspapers began reporting ritual begging on Halloween by masked youths accompanied by general hooliganism, threats, and acts of vandalism.  This was probably introduced by the wave of poor “country” Irish immigrants that began after the Potato Famine and continued through most of the rest of the century.  The ritual begging in costumes and general hooliganism more closely resembled rural Irish Wren Day—St. Stephen’s Day December 26—customs than those celebrated in either England or Scotland.
Rowdism by boys and young men was reported in big cities and small towns alike and often included setting small bonfires of junk in roadways; tipping or stealing out houses; pelting houses with eggs, rotten vegetables, or manure; letting horses and livestock loose from barns and pens; and sometime blocking chimneys so that houses would fill with smoke.  Sometime significant damage was done.  The Halloween scene in the classic MGM musical  Meet Me in St. Louis shows a rare screen glimpse at the rowdy shenanigans most Americans associated with the celebration.
As it spread, customs for observing the holiday varied regionally. Communities started to organize activities to keep the kids and hooligans off the streets, with mixed success.  Parties with games such as bobbing for apples and the telling of ghost stories were fairly common.  

Walt Disney's 1929 Silly Symphony, The Dancing Skeletons.
Animated films of the ‘20’s and ‘30’s such as Walt Disney’s 1929 Silly Symphony The Dancing Skeletons showed the popularity of the holiday and light-hearted images of death, witches, and black cats.  The Skeletons perhaps show a tip-o’-the-hat familiarity with the Mexican customs around The Day of the Dead which is celebrated on All Soul’s Day.
The custom of trick or treating seems to have spread slowly.  It combined the ritual begging with toned-down tricks that were a little less extreme than the wild rampages reported earlier.  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. 
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 relief.
1950's Trick-or-Treaters--the era of plastic masks and cheep store bought costumes.
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.

Halloween is increasingly the occation of adult revelry.
About the same time the first generations 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 world 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.
Go thou, and celebrate as thou wouldst.  

Monday, October 30, 2017

Saluting Veterans and all Who Resist—A Unique Service and Silent Auction at Tree of Life UU Congregation

A wheelbarow full of wine--an offering at the 2016 Tree of Life auction.

The Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation, 5603 Bull Valley Road in McHenry, will hold its 2017 Service and Silent Auction, A Tribute to Vets and All Who Resist, on Saturday, November 4 from 6 to 9 pm.
In honor of veterans and in support of all those committed to resisting injustice the congregation will feature live and silent auctions of goods and services donated by members, merchants, and local organizations.
Although there are a wide variety of goods, services, gift baskets, and restaurant packages offered, the Tree of Life’s annual auction is best known for its many custom gourmet dinner parties, holiday and other occasion theme parties, a barn dance in a real barn, and several outdoor adventures.

Donna Relic (rear) and Annette Jasiota are among those enjoying a kyacking adventure package purchased at the Service Aution

Ron Relic will be the genial auctioneer and the evening will be enlivened by entertainment.  There will be special activities for children, as well
Coffee, soft drinks, and adult beverages will be available as well as hors d’oeuvres.
A portion of the proceeds goes to TLS Veterans Services in McHenry County.
The auction is free and open to the public.
For more information call the church at 815 322-2464, e-mail office@treefolifeuu.org,   or visit the Facebook event.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

When You Wear a Hat as Long as I Have—Murfin Verse Redux

The hat was still young and healthy when I wore it at this Peace Vigil in Harvard, Illinois in March of 2002.

One Fall day back in 2014 I was stumped for a blog post.  Everything I found either bored me or would require such an enormous effort at research and probably turn into one of those things that runs to 6,000 words.  I know that no one reads those posts unless a blood relative is the subject.  Sometime I do them anyway if the topic interests me, but I always regret it.  Anyway, both stumped and unmotivated.  So I lay idly on a couch for an hour or so, turning my old brown felt hat over and over in my hand closely examining the damning evidence of long hard usage.  After a while I said to myself—aloud because the house was empty—“I may as well just write about the damn thing!”  Five minutes later I was pounding out the ode below.
Once again, I have nothing better to offer, so here it is again.
The hat in question was a Christmas gift from my wife Kathy in 2001.  I was in desperate need of a new dress lid.  My everyday work hat was an Indiana Jones style brown fedora I had acquired in the mid-80’s and re-creased into my favored style with a peaked center ridge pinched on either side and the brim slouched.  I wore it every day to work as a head building custodian in Cary, Illinois and to whatever second job I held--at the time a second shift gas station clerk  at a Crystal Lake Mobile.  It was battered, sweat stained, filthy, and looked like it had been run over by a garbage truck.
The trouble was my current dress hat was not in much better shape, even though it was a much higher quality sombrero.  It was a nice silver belly Stetson XXX Open Road.  I had likewise reshaped it but with it higher crown  and a broader brim bound with a ribbed silk ribbon it had once gleamed spectacularly atop my head.  It was then only five years old but because of  it its light color now looked grimy and dingy.  A hole was even emerging from the front of the peak where I grabbed the hat between my thumb and forefingers to take off and on.  It clearly no longer qualified as my dress hat and Kathy was embarrassed to be seen with me in either hat.  She was a motivated giver.
Kathy spotted the hat on sale during a Christmas shopping expedition we made to Springhill Mall, the closest big merchandising Mecca in a still bustling Sears.  Later, when we split up to check out other stores in the Mall, she doubled back and bought it then hid it somehow in the car.  It was a light brown, soft felt with a low, flat crown and a wide brim.  It had a narrow, light beige sued band that had not been well cut—it varied in length from here to there.  It was a then popular style of an exaggerated fedora with an extra wide brim, but was on the low end of the quality scale.  She paid about $15 for her prize.
When I opened her present on Christmas morning, I was a bit skeptical.  I had never worn a hat with that low a crown.  It would not hold my attempts to re-crease it in my favored center peak.  It would just pop back into shape.  The damn hat had a will of its own.  It would not be anything other than how it was made.  Sigh.  But I needed a hat, so I put it to work.
A week after Christmas it got it’s baptism of activism, when I wore it to a small New Year’s Day peace vigil organized  by the American Friends Service Committee—the Quakers—by winter d1ormant Buckingham Fountain.  Kathy and I met my former sister-in-law Arlene Brennan and her husband Michael, my nephew Ira S. Murfin and a girl he knew who was on her way to a winter job shooing bison back into Yellowstone Park to keep them from being shot by Montana ranchers.  It was the first of scores of vigils, marches, rallies, and demonstrations over the next 16 years at which I wore the hat.  Paired with a trench coat, it went with me to a giant anti-war march in Washington, D.C. later that January and sheltered by head through weekly roadside vigils that the McHenry County Peace Group kept up over the next two and a half years through all sorts of inclement weather.
The hat and I at the Haymarket monument in Chicago one May Day after I led a Labor service at a U.U. Congregation.
When I wrote and posted my poem three years ago, the old chapeau was still in daily service.  Today it has been demoted to rough duty status.  Although it has held its shape remarkably well and resists  popping holes  at pressure points—which eventually dooms my higher quality Stetsons—the fading and sweat stains can no longer be ignored.  I no longer wear it to my day job in Woodstock, unless there is heavy rain—its broad brim makes it the best rain hat I ever had.  It also holds up well when it is snowing so hard it measurably accumulates on the brim.  I still throw it on for the overnight shift gig down the street at the Circle K/Shell on weekend nights and will use it for yard work, snow shoveling,  or maybe when I walk the dog.
But despite its embarrassingly battered condition, I still break it out for all cool or cold weather protests or resistance events out of pure sentimentality.  Just last week it protected me on the cold, drizzly immigration prayer vigil and march to McHenry County Jail.  Like a reliable old comrade, the hat knew just what to do….

Last May Day in Chicago--the hat and Old Man showing wear.

When You Wear a Hat as Long as This One

When you wear a hat as long as this one—
            you know, the old brown one
            with the broad flat brim
            and low crown,
            the one Kathy bought you for Christmas
            the holiday after 9/11—
you learn to understand that the Universe
            is falling down upon you day after day
            that stardust, ashes, and cat dander
            sift unseen and constant
            day after day,
            year after year,
            one decade into the next
drifting into the creases of the crown,
            balling just a tad if you rub your
            thumb or fingers across the brim
            which has subtly changed color
            under the weight
nothing to be done about it
            the heaviest downpour does not
            wash it away,
            nor can you brush it,
            or beat it against your leg,
the stuff clings to the fine wool fibers
            of the soft felt
            and where the sweat and
            oil from your dirty hair
            touch it, it becomes a little hard
            and shiny
and the old band twisted and stained
            must be covered by one braided from
            bright fabrics somewhere in Nicaragua
            and even that band is faded and
            dusted in its folds and knots,
and the universe continues to fall unconcerned.

—Patrick Murfin