Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Why I Blame the Irish for Halloween

I was feeling badly about feeling badly about this time of year. Specifically: Autumn, and even more specifically, what has become the month-long build-up to everyone’s second favorite holiday, Halloween. Because I’ve never been a big fan of Halloween. Sure, when I was a kid we had a great carnival at my school, complete with games where you could win cheap toys, a booth for face-painting, and a haunted house manned by the upper grades. It’s the costume part that bothered me. After we graduated past the plastic mask and gown phase of our very young years, during which I was often whatever my brother had been the year before (case in point: Speed Racer), we were left to our own devices when it came to Halloween costumes. You had to find something around the house. There were the standards—hobo, witch, “lady” (which basically involved a dress, socks for breasts and makeup)—and if you were more creative, maybe a cat or a cowgirl. I never really liked donning another identity, though, always found it more embarrassing than fun or liberating. I did enjoy the pillowcase full of candy which, back then, we were allowed to eat however quickly we wanted.

Fast forward: adulthood and then my own parenthood. You’d think that perhaps my heart would have warmed for the holiday but really, it hasn’t. I have found many of our own kids’ costumes, especially when they were very little, completely adorable, and yet, the parties and trick-or-treating with all the sweets and parading around—I don’t know, just not my thing. As they grew older, our kids would start discussing and often, stressing about their costumes way in advance of the date. And it's California--it's almost always too warm for whatever costume they've chosen. Afterwards, there are negotiations and downright sabotage (on my part) in regards to the obscene amount of candy they obtain. Because people nowadays hand out insane portions, not the bite-size candy bars we used to get. But that’s another rant.

I did some reading about the history of Halloween, hoping it might get me in the mood. I had the general gist of it: ancient harvest celebrations merged with Christianity’s All Souls’ Day. This is true. The origins of the holiday date back to a Celtic festival called Samhain (pronounced sow-in). About 2000 years ago, in the area that is modern-day Ireland. The celebration was for the new year, which began November 1, and to mark the transition from summer to winter. They believed that during this transition, ghosts returned to earth and it was a good time for the Celtic priests to divine the future.  Costumes were worn for protection from ghosts, and pranks and games were played.

And then yes, Christianity came and blended in. In 1000 A.D., All Souls’ Day was moved to November 2 in what is widely believed to be a Christian coup to replace the Celtic traditions with church-sanctioned ones.

Halloween made the jump from old world to new but by the middle of the 19th century, it wasn’t widely celebrated in America. Not until the immigrant infusion of the late part of the century, especially the millions of Irish fleeing the potato famine, did Halloween become an American institution. Again, the Irish. Any parent with school-age children knows that now, ghouls and monsters have been replaced with superheroes and celebrities, that trick-or-treating is all about the treating and not really the tricking. Borrowing from European practices, things like superstitions and the wearing of costumes have been appropriated and made into the huge consumer spectacle we have today. 

So do I like Halloween more, having read about its origins? Not really. But here’s a nice little video to get you in the mood, in case you do. The history of Halloween, in a minute:

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