Wednesday, October 31, 2018

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

NoteThis annual chestnut is back! 
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 bonfires and with 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.

Catholic priests exorcize Druids and their spirits in this fanciful illustration.  But folk customs around Samhain persisted and the Church tried to adapt them to All Souls Day.
Too popular to squelch, 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.

These types of colorful greeting cards from around the turn of the 20th Century were  evidence of the growing popularity of Halloween while helping to spread it and create many of the iconic images still associated with it.
In fact there is little mention of Halloween in America until 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 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 DaySt. 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 outhouses; pelting houses with eggs, rotten vegetables, or manure; letting horses and livestock loose from barns and pens; and sometimes 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.

Parties with wholesom games were a popular alternative to the hooliganism associated with Halloween but failed to stop it.
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. 
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 Nations international children’s relief.
Inexpensive store bought costumes and masks and candy companies helped spread trick or treating in the 1950's.
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.

The popularity of horror and slasher films in theaters and on TV dramatically changed Halloween from a holiday of spooks, witches, black cats, and jack-o-lanters to a gore fest, especially for adults.  This years Halloween thirty-years-later sequel  with Jamie Lee Curtis has topped the box office for three weeks and is still going strong.
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.

Adult carousing has made Halloween a rival to New Years Eve and St. Patricks Day for the party-till-you-puke crowd.
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 with Satanism—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 29, 2018

Rosa Parks Halloween 2005—Murfin Verse

Rosa Parks' mug shot in Birmingham.  I echoed this quote, which she repeated often in slightly different wording, in my poem.

On October 24, 2005 Rosa Parks died in Detroit, Michigan at the age of 93.  She was revered as the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement for sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott by refusing to give her seat to a white man.  A young minister named Martin Luther King, Jr. was selected to lead the long campaign that led to one of the first great victories in for the Civil Rights Movement in the South.
After her death that year, she was widely honored including the then unheard of honor for a woman and a private citizen who never held high civil or military office of being laid in state in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol.  Tens of thousands filed silently by her flag draped coffin on October 31—Halloween.

Rosa Parks in her elder years in Detroit was much honored as the "Mother of the Civil Rights Movement."
I was inspired to write a poem by news coverage of the solemn event. With unwarranted audaciousness, I chose to write in her voice.  I had recently listened to some extended interviews and could clearly hear her soft, breathy tone and gentle Southern accent in my head.  I knew then, and I know now, that there will be some that take great offense—particularly because I have her voice comments about crime and young men in her troubled Detroit neighborhood.  But I had also heard her make similar comments in life.
I have read this work several times and it has appeared in this blog before.  But it seems an apt moment to revisit it.

Tens of thousands waited in long lines to pay their respects to Rosa Parks as the laid in state in the Capital Rotunda on Halloween 2005.

Rosa Parks on Halloween  2005

I didn’t hold truck with Halloween.
I was a good Christian woman.
Ask anyone who ever knew me,
            they will tell you so.

Back in Detroit young fools,
            with pints and pistols
            in their back pockets
            burned the neighborhood
            each Halloween.
Hell Night they called it
            and it was.
Heathen business, I say.

I passed on a few days ago.
Time had whittled me away.
Small as I was to begin with,
            I had no weight left
            to tie me to the earth.

Now I lay in a box on cold marble.
The empty dome of the Capital
            pretends to be heaven above.
A river of faces turns around me,
            gawking, weeping, murmuring.
I see them all.

Maybe those old Druids,
            pagan though they were,
            were right about the air
            between the living and the dead
            being thin this day.

More likely that Sweet Chariot
            has parked somewhere
            and let me linger a while
            just so I could see this
            before swinging low
            to carry me home.

It makes me proud alright.
I was always proud.
Humility before the Lord
            may be a virtue,
            but humility before the master
            was the lash that kept
            Black folks down.
We grew pride as a back bone.

All of this is nice enough.
But let me tell you,
            since I’ve been gone,
            I’ve seen some foolishness
            and heard plenty, too.

They talk all kinds of foolishness
            about that day in Montgomery.
All that falderal about my feet being tired.
It wasn’t my soles that ached.
It was my soul.

It wasn’t any sudden accident either.
No sir, I prayed at the AME church.
I went to the Highland School
            for rabble rousers and trouble makers.
I met with the brothers at the NAACP
            who were a little afraid
            of an uppity woman.

Another thing.
That day was not my whole life.
There were 42 years before
            and fifty more after.
There was plenty of loving and grieving,
            sweat and laughter,
            and always speaking my mind
            very plainly, thank you.

Sure, there were parades.
There were medals and speeches, too.
But there were also long lonely days.

Once, up in Detroit,
            I was beat half to death
            in my own home
            by a wild eyed thug.
He didn’t care if I was
            the Mother of Civil Rights.
He never heard of Dr. King
            or the bus boycott.
All he wanted was my Government money.
            so he could go out
            and hop himself up some more.

That a young Black man
            could do that to an old woman,
            any old woman,
            near broke my heart.
That I could step out my door           
            and see copies of him
            lolling on every street corner
            made me mad.

We may have changed the world,
            like they kept saying.
We didn’t change it enough.
We didn’t keep the hope from
            being sucked out of the city.

This business in the Capital  
            is alright, I suppose.
And it was nice enough to be brought
            back to Montgomery, too,
            laid out in the chapel
            of my home church.
But clearly some folks have
            gone out of their minds.

Why, in Houston the other day,
            before a World Series game,
            they had the crowd stand silent
            in my memory.
It was a sea of white faces
            who paid a seamstress’s
            wages for a month for a seat.
It seems the only Black faces
            were on the field
            or roaming the aisles
            selling hot dogs.

And, Lord, the two-faced politicians
            that came out of the woodwork!
The governor of Alabama
            cried crocodile tears
            as if he would not be
            happy to have
            a White Citizen’s Council
            membership card in his wallet
            if it would get him some votes.

Somebody roused George W. from his stupor,
            told him in short easy words
            who I was,
            and shoved him out
            in front of the microphones
            to eulogize me.
He looked uncomfortable and confused.
I understand he had other things
            on his mind.

What these politicians had in mind
            was patting black folks on the head.
“See,” they say, “Mrs. Parks and Dr. King
            took care of everything.
They asked for freedom and we gave it to them
            a long, long time ago.
What more can you ask?
Now stand over there out of the way
            so we can get down to the business  
            of going after real money.”

It plain tires me out.

Little children, Black and white,
            who study me in school,
            do not think the job is over.
Your own bus seat must be won every day.
And while you are at it,
            have the driver change the route.

—Patrick Mufin