For all that October contains my favorite holiday, it also seems to garner more than its share of angst. Every October I end up dealing with a death, a burglary, a serious illness, or something equally ominous and consuming. Were I a religious man I’d think I was getting a warning of some kind.
This year was no different; I’ll spare you the details. It’s been challenging trying to keep posts coming, and even so less than half of the drafts were published. For example, I’ve pictured the films and television shows I planned to review. An aggressive schedule, to be certain, but then again, time is one thing I have in surplus. But I found a temporary job, and Miss Fuzzy was killed, and et cetera, et cetera, and they went largely unwatched. I didn’t even have time to finish my reviews of the two discs I did watch. So it goes.
Unseasonal as it may be, reviews for some of these discs will creep out in the weeks and months to come. Not today, though; yesterday’s election was gruesome enough for now, thank you very much.
Right now, I’m going to fix some dinner, mix an adult beverage, and try to figure out how November 2 ended up in October.
For the first few decades of the 20th century people used postcards for holiday communications. This was before both the more modern folded greeting cards, and the current electronic cards. Postcard publication was a huge industry, with the best illustrators of the day contributing art. While the initial cards were relatively simple, as time passed and competition intensified printers started to add embossing and metallic inks to their offerings.
I’ve added scans of both the front and back of each card. Most of the time the back is pretty boring, but since I rather like the “postally used” cards (to use the collector’s term), some have great stories. I haven’t found any with a South Florida connection yet, but that isn’t surprising. Miami had barely been incorporated when the tradition started, and then the first real estate collapse and the 1926 hurricane disrupted what little normal routine existed.
For the uninitiated, it may seem odd that so many of the Hallowe’en cards in my collection have romantic themes, but back then the holiday wasn’t viewed the same as today. It was a harvest holiday, sure, and the German and Irish immigrants brought elements of their own celebrations with them. For kids it was a chance to play, whether dressing up as gremlins or ghosts to scare people, or carving jack o’lanterns. But for young, single adults it was a chance to play with an innocent bit of magic, playing fortune-telling games at parties.
So in the first half of the twentieth century Hallowe’en was about a little mystery and a little magic and playing jokes and being safely scared, with maybe a hint of romance mixed in. It was a different world, and a world that’s reflected in these vintage postcards.
[My apologies to the Apple users, but I couldn’t get WordPress to give me a slideshow with all 98 images, so I had to use Flickr, and Flickr uses Flash, which you can’t see. You can navigate directly to the Vintage Hallowe’en Postcards set, though, and see them there.]
Hallowe’en is my most important holiday. I am not a pagan, born-again or otherwise, although I have nothing against members of those ancient and venerable (or new-age and invented) orders. However, my sentiment has nothing to do with any religion, organized or not, so we can safely leave those discussions out of this particular story. No, my love of All Hallows Eve is a little more personal.
When I was a child, Christmas was fun. Not having been raised in a very religious atmosphere, it was primarily a season of visiting relatives, eating cookies and candy, playing in snow, and getting presents. We followed many of the same rituals as other families of our class and background: enormous Christmas trees, house lights, waking bleary-eyed parents at 6:00am to see what Santa had left (even though we would always peek in the doorway while Daddy struggled with his 8mm movie camera), and all the rest. But, it was, in a way, too ritualized. We knew all the moves ahead of time; only the specific details changed from year to year.
The Fourth of July offered its own type of excitement, too, with firecrackers, bottle rockets, and bar-be-ques. The thrill was spiked a bit whenever we would visit my grandparents, because Grandpa Palmer had a small cannon he would load with black powder and shredded newspaper to show up all the other kids. That was always pretty neat, though in retrospect, I’m not sure why. It just made a tremendously loud BANG, and that was it. Just a little confetti drifting down afterwards.
But Hallowe’en was always different. For one, I had influence on it. You see, my mother was a frustrated artist, who lived for the opportunity to use her skills. Holidays were always been the best time for this. At Christmas, we had a tree-full of hand-made ornaments; there were intricately decorated cookies to eat; on our lawn painted plywood Peanuts characters acted out the end of that perennial TV favorite, A Charlie Brown Christmas. Easter brought heaping baskets of candy, and tons of elaborately decorated eggs. But Hallowe’en brought costumes! And, I got to choose what type.
Every year we would begin a ritual. My mother would ask me what kind of a costume I wanted, and I would go crazy trying to decide. As do most young boys, I had an intense monster fetish. Wolfman, Frankenstein (it wasn’t until years later that I discovered that Franky was the doctor, not the monster), Dracula, various ghosts, witch doctors, alien creatures, and other mind-numbing horrors were considered each year, but only one could be chosen. Ah, the exquisite agony of decision!
Eventually, often with Mama’s prompting, I would decide. Then my mother would begin the arduous process of getting a boy with little concept of how these things work to sit still for several fittings, and assist in the choice of colors for the mask which I would wear to complete the disguise. This was not a simple process at all, for Mama’s artistic ingenuity knew no bounds. As an example, one year, I was to be a Witch Doctor. A tight-fitting chocolate brown costume was made, along with a grass skirt and an over-sized paper maché mask. But, for the finishing touch, she put some chicken bones in vinegar for weeks, to make them soft and rubbery, then strung them together into a necklace. It was perfect. (Politically correct, it was not, and I admit to a certain horror at the memory now. But those were less enlightened times.)
Then the fun would begin. Back in those simpler days, before the rules of fun were written by toy manufacturers, there were always costume parties in school. I don’t think that I won any, because there were always richer kids who could have professional costumes made. But the other kids always thought my costumes were the coolest, making it one of the few times that I was accepted by my peers. A Sav-mart Spider-man costume with a flimsy plastic mask just didn’t cut it next to my silver and blue alien jumpsuit and helmet, or a glow-in-the-dark Green Ghost costume.
And then, the ultimate event, the High Mass of All Hallow’s Eve: Trick-Or-Treating. We would begin the preparations shortly after dark, with my father putting a bowl of candy inside by the front door, for those other “lost souls” who might come by. My brother and I had, by this time, been forced to eat dinner. Our diet for the next few days would consist largely of Three Musketeers, Butterfingers, and Atomic Fireballs, so I suppose it was a last meal, of sorts. Afterwards we would whine and beg and be generally irritating until we would be allowed to get into costume for the evening’s performance. After a final checking over of all scare-systems, we would be off.
We would travel in packs, with several other neighborhood kids. The fathers would travel discreetly behind, even then, often carrying empty highball glasses for their own “treats” at discerning homes. We would run wild, carrying on like the madmen and ghouls we represented, but still finding time to stop at every house for a hearty cry of “TRICK OR TREAT!” It was rare that we would ever even consider a trick, because everyone knew the rules: if you give the kids candy, then they have a good time; if you don’t, they’ll be confused at the break from tradition, and call you stupid names. After a few hours, though, we would have gone as far as our fathers’ legs could carry them, and they would herd us toward home, where two final rituals awaited.
The first was the checking of the count. Why it was first begun, I’m not sure, probably idle curiosity, but my mother counted every single trick-or-treater who came to the door, and dutifully reported to my father as to their number. (In later years, this became a sad barometer of how effectively the true monsters were killing this holiday, as the numbers dwindled down from hundreds, to tens, to less than ten). The second arcane rite was the dividing of the spoils, my brother and I each pouring the contents of our brightly smiling plastic jack o’lanterns into carefully distinct piles on the floor. With a fervor which would make a futures trader proud, we would bid and barter to get the candy we wanted, and stick the other with the undesirable black licorice bits and stale popcorn balls. My mother went through the heaps first, though, as the concept of razor blades in apples, though quaint by today’s standards, was the real menace then. Funny how no-one thought that the holiday needed to be banned then; parents just protected their children by going through the bag before the kids ate anything.
Then, sugar-stuffed and bone-tired, we would complain and head off to bed. I would usually try to stay awake for a while, thinking of ghoulish and ghastly things. But, inevitably, sleep would come, bringing with it the threat of another ordinary day tomorrow — a threat that was always carried out.
But all these childhood memories are just part of the reason. Besides the personal considerations, to my mind Hallowe’en fills a very real need in the world: it is the only holiday glorifying the imagination. Ghoulies and ghosties scare us because we can imagine them; we can cut two holes in a sheet and become a lost soul, or don a set of plastic fangs and become the lord of the undead; we can tell and re-tell dark tales and revel in the crawling of gooseflesh. No other holiday even pays lip service to the wonders of the creative spirit. Other holidays may have their charms, but their primary purpose is the celebration of tradition, containing little room for anything more than habit.
The very soul of All Hallow’s Eve is mystery. Christmas is still, at heart, Christmas. The Fourth of July is part of the past, relived once a year. The Easter story has been told, and is fixed and unchanging, likewise with most holidays. But, Hallowe’en is new and frightening every time. There are always new stories to tell on Hallowe’en, tales which have never been told before.
And, it encompasses so very much. Christians, spiritualists, and atheists alike can share this occasion. Anyone must still see the need for the ability to see what is not there, or what might yet come to be. How else can great inventions be conceived, or great books written? All that separates man from other life on the planet is his imagination. Isn’t that worthy of celebration?
I suppose that in the end, Hallowe’en is religious for me. I have my rituals: carved pumpkins, candy, scary stories told in the dark. I have my traditions and gospels as well, when I sit in the dark and tell the story of the Haunted Elevator, or remember the costumes my mother used to make for me. On Hallowe’en I celebrate all the wonders of the limitless human imagination.
[First published in Ambergris From Leviathan Hallowe’en Special, October 1989]
When I was very young my mother would sew us costumes from patterns, always embellishing them with touches of her own frustrated artistry. Cats, bats, green-streaked ghosts, the devil himself â€” all the traditions were observed.
Your author, Hallowe’en, 1962
As a child we would cut pumpkins and black cats from construction paper with round-tipped scissors, gluing them with child-like care to butcher paper to make haunted scenes to hang from classroom walls. Occasionally we would tell stories, or in later years, read them from books. Even at eight years old I knew that the tale is in the telling.
Haunted house, 1960s
Trick-or-treating changed between Kentucky and Florida. In the early years it was much more innocent, although even then there were admonitions not to eat anything until my parents could check out treat bags. But it was a friendlier neighborhood, friendly enough that the accompanying fathers could go door-to-door with us carrying highball glasses, getting refills along the way. In Florida we still made our rounds, but the distances were longer, the weather was too hot in October for the heavy costumes my mother designed, so sacrifices were made. Still, it kept up for a few more years.
High school band, 1976
Of course, as I got older the nature of the holiday changed, at least among my peers. It became less about the weakened barriers between the worlds, and more about the weakened inhibitions of the sexes. Costume parties turned into toga parties, and for an introspective guy with a traditionalist streak, it started to lose its allure. (Although I must confess that the ladies in togas lost not a whit of their personal allure.)
Togas, 1980s (your host not pictured)
When I met the woman I married we quickly discovered a shared love of the old-school Hallowe’en, and started having annual parties in a more traditional sense. Pumpkin carving, classic costumes (or all black and a Mardi Gras style mask), spooky music, telling ghost stories by pumpkin light. They were surprisingly popular, as it turned out, so much so that one year I proposed to her as we prepared for our guests’ arrival. It was probably the best Hallowe’en party I’ve ever had, save possibly for our wedding a year later on October 30th. Sadly, our divorce was also finalized near Hallowe’en.
The seasons change, and I keep hoping to rekindle the spirit, to resurrect the tradition. When I took my current job I became the de facto cheerleader for the holiday, and helped to get people back into the mood. My reward was to have so much extra responsibility piled on me that I simply can’t do more than cobble together a work-appropriate costume, if that. So it goes.
At Fairchild Tropical Garden, 2007
Tonight, in lieu of going to the usual South Beach bacchanal, I’ll watch Frankenstein or The Mummy or The Nightmare Before Christmas, or maybe listen to some Bach or The Changelings or Vincent Price, or read Bierce or Lovecraft or Poe. Maybe I’ll do it all.
After all, someone has to keep the traditions alive, while we wait for the world to be ready for the return of the true Hallowe’en.
While I was sitting on the porch in the pre-dawn, listening to the hot Miami winds blow through the fronds, Evil Tom joined me for a snack.
“Good morning, Tom. Happy Hallowe’en. What brings you out in the small hours?”
He lifted his shaggy ginger face from the bowl of food and considered me through rheumy eyes. This is my time, Feeder. It is not yours. Why are you out? He returned to his crunching.
“I’ve been sick again, Evil Tom, and I’ve had too much on my mind to rest properly. With the storm coming I decided to get out of the house and enjoy the wind.”
Without looking up: Are you enjoying it?
“It’s okay, I guess, but it isn’t enough. I almost wish we would get a little hurricane, or even a severe storm. I need something with natural force to shake me out of this funk. I mean, it’s Hallowe’en, why can’t I get something a little more primal?”
Tom lumbered to his feet and began grooming his matted and dirty fur. I drank more coffee. In the darkness down the street something was blown over, and dogs began to bark, one, then another, then another.
“Stupid, noisy dogs.”
Stupid, yes, but still dangerous. That’s when swaggering young toms and kittens die, when they believe that dogs are always stupid.
Wanting the winds and rain to come because you hurt is stupid, Feeder. The Trapped Ones and others say you are like a cat. I say you are nothing like a cat.
“The Trapped Ones? You mean, the cats in my house?”
He turned three times then settled onto the terracotta tiles, regarding me balefully. As you wish. They no longer know the joy of the hunt, or the pleasure of moonlight runs in the company of their kind.
“Yeah, but they don’t know the terror of speeding cars, either, or disease, or… wait, why am I bothering to argue with you?”
We sat in silence for a while as the sky shifted from black to indigo. The sounds of trucks on the highway became more frequent, and occasional night people nodded at me as they passed on the sidewalk.
It is your holiday, Feeder, and you haven’t hunted. You spend your nights in the windowless room that stinks of lightning, and not under the sky. If you were my kit I would tell you to hunt one of the rats nesting in the dead palms behind your home, drinking its terror to fire your heart. I know you will not. He yawned broadly. You are no cat.
There are things that walk on this night, Feeder. You know this better than most, but your people make stories about them without understanding. You wear strange cloth, you shout and make noise. You don’t understand.
I started to interject, but he cut me off.
Be silent. I was sick, Feeder, and near my time, and you gave me food and showed me kindness and kept the Dark Cat from me. For that alone I will tell you this. You no longer see the Walkers, but they are still there. We try to keep them from you, but they are of your kind, not ours.
He rose stiffly to his feet, arched his back, and padded slowly to the end of the porch, then leaped lithely into the black-green grass.
As he faded into the shadows, his words drifted across the lawn. Not all masks are cloth â€” the Walkers are your own. If you want to live, feed yourself.