by William Waites

Here Comes Halloween

Watch Out for Ghouls and Ghosts This Month… for Halloween Belongs to Them

Despite its contemporary popularity, Halloween has an ancient history. Think of what a northern winter is like. Now imagine that same season 600 years ago. Cold and wet, even indoors, where a single fireplace may be the only source of heat for an entire dwelling. Everything outdoors stops growing. Vegetation recedes and reminds people of the fragility of life.

That would be the setting in England and Scotland at the end of October 1500. It would also be human for the Druids and Celts living at that time in that place to reflect on the spirits of those who departed during the year. Would they make a return visit? The inhabitants paused to recognize the potential threats of returning spirits who might ask surviving kin to sustain them on their journeys to the underworld. Eventually, the Church joined the movement and set November 1st and 2nd as days to acknowledge the hallowed. October 31, the night before All Hallows Day would become Halloween.

Practices at the time included carving lanterns from turnips and adding candles to guide people safely as they passed through the night. Family members dressed in costumes representing the dead. They walked through the village to pay homage to and seek protection from the returning spirits among them. Costumed participants knocked on doors to ask those who answered to “Help the Poor” in return for offers to pray for the departed souls.

This practice came to America in the trunks and traditions of European immigrants. It continued year after year, adding pranks as a way to “encourage” the tight-fisted to meet the requests. This writer recalls being dressed up in his mother’s home-sewn costume, usually some variant of a vagrant/hobo/tramp. Not only was the point to look “poor.” In the case of my family, it was an economic reality since we were anything but well-off, although we never lacked for love.

“Help the Poor”, we would humbly ask of the person who came to the door. He or she would call out to others in the house, “Come and see the kids in costumes”, while reaching into a basket of candies, pennies, and fruit stashed by the door. The goodies would be distributed into the paper bags each of us carried. We always went out in groups or with a parent just out of sight. Even in those relatively benign times, it was important to protect the youngsters.

Eventually, the standard greeting devolved to the more coercive, “Trick or Treat”, suggesting that failure to comply would result in some regrettable consequence. For the most part, the trick was “soaping” the windows of the house. Bar soap was the instrument of choice if the threat was to be enforced. Then we would ring the doorbell again and run away giggling to hide in nearby bushes. In cases when more extreme measures were called for, the wax would replace soap or shrubs would be draped with toilet paper. Although, I personally NEVER did that. Cross my heart.

Kids would go home with bags of candy to be inspected by their parents, often with the best pieces mysteriously disappearing by the next morning. As an adult, I figured out how that happened. During the inspection, the most “dangerous” (read “tempting”) chocolate treasures would be eaten by adults to protect the children. When my kids grew up and no longer went “trick-or-treating,” I would buy a bag of candy for the youngsters in the neighbor, always hoping there would treats left over as a reward for my generosity. Indeed, when we moved to neighborhoods that were not frequented by squads of urchins, many of which began to include six-footers, I continued to place a bag of candy treats by the door for Hallowe’en. It became my responsibility to eat them by myself over the winter.

Speaking of candy, the one I could never figure out and had little interest in, was candy corn. I guess it’s connection to Halloween was the seasonality of corn harvest. For whatever reason, it became a Halloween staple and now as symbolic of the event as pumpkins are.

Pumpkins? They replaced turnips when Halloween moved to North America, where pumpkins were more common and, I suspect, easier to carve. By the time this issue of The Corridor reaches your mailbox, many non-profit community groups will be selling them on street corners and at farm stands by the mound-full. In the days my kids were growing up, the Missus and I would take the kids out to a farm to pick the most desirable, most easily carved specimens. We gathered at the kitchen table to hollow out the seedy innards and create faces funny or frightening. Those masterpieces would find their way to the front porch where they would rest as guardians against invading spirits and neighborhood kids.

The ascent of the pumpkin also brought us such wonders as pumpkin lattes, pumpkin ice cream and, most revered of all, pumpkin pie to be served as a harbinger of Thanksgiving, the next big day on the calendar, my mother’s pumpkin chiffon pie worth waiting all year for.

To be fair to candy corn, it was plentiful and less expensive, making it a suitable candy to give away, especially to kids with indiscriminate fathers. On the other end of the expense scale were candied apples. Sometimes they were known as caramel apples, depending on the sweet coating of choice. Tasty as they were, the caramel coating could gum up all the candy in the bag if you did not eat them immediately. Maybe watching an eight-year-old trying to manage something as difficult as a gooey apple on a stick was why they were popular treats among the adults. It could keep the youngsters occupied, so they couldn’t effectively apply soap to a window.

Happy Halloween to All You Spooks, and Spider-wielders, Pirates and Princesses