Saturday, October 31, 2020

The Bones of Halloween From Samhain to Modern Revelry

As real horror stalks the world, Halloween will be very different in the age of the Coronavirus.

NoteThis annual chestnut is back!  But this year the observations are muted by true horror—the mounting death tolls of the Coronavirus pandemic.  Trick or Treating is iffy or banned in many places.  Bars are closed in Illinois and elsewhere.  We are advised not to let anyone in our homes who do not live there for parties.

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 Beltane, 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.

Rowdyism 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.

The scary Halloween scene from Meet Me in St. Louis illustrated both the street begging and hooliganism associate with it in the early 20th Century.

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.

Walt Disney's 1929 Silly Symphony cartoon The Skeleton Dance  helped make them an enduring Halloween image. 

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

Trick or Treating spread rapidly in the post-World War II years.

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.

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, and fueled by the growing popularity of increasingly violent Hollywood filmsGore 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 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.

Adult carousing has made Halloween a rival to New Years Eve and St. Patrick's Day for the party-till-you-puke crowd.

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

Fundamentalist opposition to Halloween might be swimming against the cultural tide, but increasingly schools and some municipalities skittish about the complaints have substituted a bland harvest festival or banned any kind of celebration.

At the same time re-invented “traditional” paganism like Wicca, one of the most rapidly growing religious movements of the last decades, has striven to recapture the nearly lost significance of the holiday’s roots in Samhain—and sometime invented traditions on flimsy or non-existent evidence.

Go thou, and celebrate as thou wouldst.   


Friday, October 30, 2020

Fifteen Years Later Rosa Parks on Halloween —Murfin Verse

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

It’s hard to believe that it has already been 15 years since October 24, 2005 when Rosa Parks died in Detroit, Michigan at the age of 93.  She is 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 celebrated including the then unheard of honor for a woman and 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 Murfin

Thursday, October 29, 2020

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

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 suede band that had not been well cut—it varied in width 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 dormant 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 my 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 six 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 for regular daily use to 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 yard work, snow shoveling, or and when I walk the dog.

The "new evey day hat, then nine years old, on the Old Man's head in Woodstock in 2018.  Photo by Bill Delaney 

The old brown hat has been replaced for everyday use by a grey Bailey’s U-Roll-It that I picked up in Sheridan, Wyoming back in 2009.  It is very different from the old one—curled brim with the front slouched down and a higher crown.  It is showing its age too, but is still serviceable for the general running around of a retired geezer.

For Christmas two years ago Kathy got me another new dress hat.  This one is very nice but black, a hat color I had never worn.  I break it out for our dinner dates at better places, to go to the theater, and for a few special occasions.  Most of those opportunities are on hold due to  Coronavirus precautions. I have to keep the new hat in a tightly closed plastic bag because each speck of dust stands out against the black.

Anyway, here is my ode to an old hat.

The old hat made one of its final appearances at a demo or action at a Chicago Labor Day march in 2017. Note the sweat stains and faded braided band.

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