Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Halloween Myth, Lore, and Legend


Note—Our annual Halloween post.

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 Years 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.

Details of actual Druid practices are practically unknown but widely imagined as in this illustration of a supposed ritual at Stonehenge.

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 Halloween 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. Stephens Day December 26—customs than those celebrated in either England or Scotland.

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

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.  Sometimes 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.  

Parties for children with wholesome games were a popular alternative to the hooliganism associated with Halloween but failed to stop it.

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.  It also borrowed heavily from Mexican Day of the Dead imagery.

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 spread rapidly in the post-World War II years.

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 childrens 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 widespread 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.

In the 1950's stores like Woolworths were one-stop Halloween shopping centers.  Inexpensive costumes, masks, and gear replaced homemade costumes and candy companies promoted their sweets for treats instead of homemade popcorn balls, cookies, and apples.

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.

Halloween has been increasingly identified with horror/slasher films like John Carpenter's 1972 Halloween starring Jamie Lee Curtis and its sequels including the Academy Award winning turn for Jamie Lee Curtis Halloween Ends.

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 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.

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

At 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.

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.

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.  

Modern Wiccans and other neopagans practice a wide variety of largely invented Samhain and Halloween rituals.  By some accounts Wicca is the fastest growing religion in the U.S.

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.  

Monday, October 30, 2023

Rosa Parks on Halloween —Another Murfin Verse Resurrection


Rosa Parks' mug shot in Birmingham.  I echoed this frequently cited quote in slightly different wording, in my poem.

Rosa Parks died on October 24, 2005 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