Why (Still) Hallowe’en?

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.

The pleasure that goes with it!

[First published in Ambergris From Leviathan Hallowe’en Special, October 1989. Most recently appeared here in 2006. Time flies when you are dead.]

Words for my father

In honor of Fathers Day — and more specifically, in honor of my own wonderful father — here are two stories about him. Both have been previously published, but they will be new to many of you.

Slow learner:

But so much of who we become originates with our parents, for good or ill. My mother taught me to use my imagination and be creative, to have a vision, to reach, and to make the best use of what I was given; these are essential parts of my creative nature, and I wouldn’t have any of it without her influence. It was obvious that her goal was to mold me into an artist of some sort. My father, though, shaped who I became without me ever noticing it.

Chief Paduke’s Revenge:

Several years ago my brother and I were talking about practical jokes we had played, stupid pranks and whatnot. My dad was around, and was laughing at the stories he hadn’t heard before, and pointing out the times we hadn’t been nearly as clever as we had thought. Now, my dad has a prankster’s heart, and we were fairly sure he had pulled off some good ones in his day, so we asked him about it. He laughed, and regaled us with the following tale.

Being a parent isn’t easy. It takes a special commitment to raise a child, a commitment many people aren’t willing to make. And for those of you who aren’t making that effort, it isn’t too late. Be a part of the lives of your kids. It will make a difference to them, and to you.

But to all the fathers out there — male or female; young or old; born to the role, deliberately choosing it, or forced into it by circumstances — who are making the effort and taking the time to be part of the lives of your children, may your day be filled with warmth and joy and love.