Have Yourself an Old-Fashioned Halloween
Halloween was always my favorite holiday when I was a kid (way back in the 1960s)—even more than Christmas. Back then, it was a very child-focused holiday, with a few exceptions. My parents hosted a Halloween costume party that I will never forget. One of their male friends came as Little Bo Peep (my first experience seeing a straight guy in drag!), while my dad borrowed a theatre costume and dressed as a very authentic Henry VIII. But the day was really for the young. I looked forward to trick or treating all year long. Our costumes were homemade—only the tiniest tots wore the printed-jammies-and-plastic-mask costumes from the dime store.
When I became a serious Pagan, Halloween turned into Samhain and a sacred holiday for me. I continued carving Jack o’lanterns and dressing up to answer the door. But for twenty-five years I’ve lived on a country road too lonely and dangerous for trick or treating, and my observance of the holiday has been a very private one. In the meantime, Halloween as a social and cultural event has exploded in the United States. Evangelical Christians deplore “the glorification of evil and the occult” in vain. Halloween is big business, to the tune of $8 billion a year for candy, costumes, decorations and events. It’s the grown-ups who decorate their houses and yards and wear the costumes now, both often far more explicitly gruesome and macabre than anything from my youth.
If you don’t celebrate October 31 as a religious holiday (either Pagan Samhain or the Christian “All Hallows”), you may enjoy all the brilliant and technological festivities. You can buy Halloween lights in multiple colors and styles, and professional quality costumes and make-up. Elaborate yard displays include life-size ghosts, monsters and skeletons, or huge inflatable and/or animated figures (my neighbors have a giant spider on their porch roof right now that looks like it should be chasing Frodo through Cirith Ungol). But what if you fall somewhere between these two poles? Maybe you’d like to try some of the old-fashioned, quieter traditions for celebrating the day. Here are a few things you can do:
The original Jack o’ lantern predates the introduction of the pumpkin to Europe from the Americas, where it was domesticated and cultivated by the Native tribes. The earliest such “punkie lights” were made from large root vegetables like turnips, rutabagas and mangel-wurzels. You can buy the big rutabagas in many grocery stores, often waxed to keep them from drying out.
The first time I tried making a “turnip light,” I was surprised at how easy it was. All you need is a large metal spoon with a sharp edge. Slice the top off the rutabaga and start scooping out the inside flesh a little at a time. As you work down into the core, start scooping to the sides. You want to hollow out the rutabaga until the sides are between a half inch to a quarter inch thick. Make a “floor” at the bottom that can hold a tea light candle (or you can use a battery-powered Jack o’ lantern light or a small flashlight) When your rutabaga is completely hollowed out, carve it the same way you would a pumpkin.
Try Out Some Fortune-Telling.
Reading the future was a common tradition for a number of holidays, including New Year’s Eve, May Day and Midsummer Day. But there are more fortune-telling customs around Halloween than any other day. Many of them sought predictions on who would die in the coming twelve months, but many asked about love and marriage. A young girl would sit before a mirror with her hair unbound at midnight on Halloween. By the light of a single candle, she would eat an apple slowly and comb her hair, waiting to see the shadowy image of her future husband appear over her shoulder.
You could try reading the cards or any other divination method you know. The Ouija Board has acquired an undeservedly negative reputation, but you can make a “talking board,” the Victorian parlor game on which the Ouija Board is based. All you need is a large sheet of smooth paper on which you’ve written the letters of the alphabet, numerals, and any symbols or words you wish (“yes” and “no” help speed things along). Then you need a small flat, or flat-bottomed, object that will slide easily over the paper. The Victorians used an inverted wine glass (short stem, wide mouth and base). A large coin like a silver dollar also works well. To operate the talking board, two or more people rest the tips of their fingers on the slider very lightly. It can take a while for the board to come to life—it should start with the slider moving in broad, sweeping circles. When it stops, ask a question.
Speak to the Spirits.
Traditionally, Halloween was the old Celtic New Year and the beginning of winter. That made it a “threshold” holiday when different dimensions or planes of reality overlapped, and beings not usually seen in our world could enter. This might include the Fae, spirits of the dead, deities, elementals, and to Christians, angels or devils. Dressing up in masks and costumes (or “guising”) as these beings was a way of confusing them or warding off the harm they might do.
But Halloween was often a solemn time of communing with these spirits. You could set a “dumb supper” or empty place setting at your dinner table for them, or leave a lighted candle with food and drink by the hearth (if you have one) or on the doorstep. People sometimes sat before a mirror hoping to glimpse a lost loved one, or placed a memento under their pillows and made a wish to speak to the departed in their dreams. Pagans create “ancestor altars” with photos and small belongings of deceased family members, while Christians remember their beloved dead in their prayers.
Make Something Out of Blackberries.
The last blackberries of the year must be eaten before Halloween night—after that, anything left in the fields belongs to the “pwca” (or Pooka), a dark and sinister spirit shaped like an animal. Bake a blackberry tart or squeeze the juice for a deep red drink.
Bob for Apples.
Apples are a sacred fruit in many cultures, and autumn is their time of year. Bobbing for apples is one of the oldest and most common of Halloween games. An apple is floated in a large tub of water and the contestants have to try and retrieve the apple with their teeth. In a variation, you can hang the apple from a string—the winner is the first who manages to take a good bite out of it. The winner must eat the whole apple after the game ends, and supposedly will gain the gift of second sight.
Candy apples—dipped in candy syrup, caramel or another sweet coating and often rolled in nuts—are one of the earliest Halloween “treats.”
These and other traditional customs are less expensive and gaudy than animatronic zombies or cakes shaped to look like severed body parts. When you revive them, you’re connecting with your forebears who practiced them in simpler times. That connection with those who have passed on is the “true meaning of Halloween.” But whatever you do to celebrate, have a fun, safe and spooky October 31!
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