It is the coolest thing that my blog this week falls on Halloween. Halloween—All Hallow’s Eve, Samhain, Season of the Witch, whatever you want to call it—is my absolute favorite holiday. Vampires, witches, ghosts, goblins, skeletons, scarecrows, mummies, monsters, pumpkins, costumes, jack-o-lanterns, autumn colors, candy, and pie. Can you ask for more from a holiday?
A Brief History of Halloween
Halloween began as a pagan holiday, a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. It was believed to be a magical time, when spirits and fairies entered our world and the souls of the dead visited their homes. Bonfires were lit, offerings of food and drink were left for them, and people went door to door in costumes, reciting verses in exchange for food. This was known as “guising” and is thought to be the origin of trick-or-treating. (Sounds a lot like the Christmas tradition of wassailing or caroling, no?)
In the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church made November 1 All Saints’ Day, November 2 All Souls’ Day, and October 31 All Hallow’s Eve (“holy evening”), thereby “Christianizing” the holiday. All Hallow’s Eve eventually became Halloween, and the three days are referred to as Hallowmas. The act of guising was also Christianized: Now groups of people (poor and usually children) went door to door to receive “soul cakes,” baked as a prayer of salvation for souls in purgatory. This became known as “souling.” Candles were burned to guide the souls back to visit their homes; these were known as “soul lights.”
Those who went guising hollowed out turnips and put a candle in them for illumination as they went around at night, and to scare away evil spirits. They would carve grotesque faces in them to represent ghouls. These became known as jack-o’-lanterns. When Halloween arrived in North America, pumpkins were used instead, since they were native and grew abundantly (and were easier to carve).
Halloween spread to North America in the late 18th/early 19th century and went into the mainstream the early 20th century.
Tomorrow is November 1, known in Mexico as Day of the Dead. By the way, did you know that our own Andi has a new book out, number 4 in her New Mexico series, that just happens to be called Day of the Dead? <R.G. asks with innocent wide eyes>
I’m not entirely convinced of this whole after-life thing, but, suspending my own disbelief for a while, I’ll share with you my own experience with hauntings.
About 15 years ago, I moved into my house with my then-partner. With the exception of insane/homophobic/pole-up-the-ass neighbors, it was a perfectly normal home and environment. Soon after we moved in, however, we began noticing that the light bulbs in the lamps in the living room would blow, even if they had just been replaced a couple of weeks before.
I don’t remember how, but we came to the conclusion that one of the previous owners, Mrs. Targia, was haunting the house. We still received mail for her regularly and we jokingly commented that she kept coming back for her mail. Although having to constantly replace the bulbs was annoying, we accepted her presence in the house, knowing that she meant us no harm.
One day, my partner brought home an old friend. I had met this friend (let’s call her Mary) years before and knew her to be a very nice person, and my partner had told me that Mary was a bit psychic, which I shrugged off as nonsense. Mary looked around our house and commented on its loveliness. Then, with absolutely no prompting, she said, “You have a spirit living here. She used to own this house.” I went completely cold. “Do you have problems with your lights going out?” she asked. We told her that the bulbs kept blowing with unreasonable frequency.
“That’s her,” she said. She explained that spirits have energy that messes around with electrical currents. “But she’s happy that you’re here. She loved this house and she’s happy because she knows that you both love it and take care of it.”
About ten years later, my partner and I broke up. Oddly, around this time, we stopped getting mail for Mrs. Targia and the bulbs stopped blowing out.
Did she leave because she was upset that the two people she counted on to take care of her beloved home were no longer together? Or did she sense the sadness and no longer wanted to stay?
My own fascination with the occult and supernatural go back to my childhood. I remember reading books about Halloween and supernatural beings, and in junior high, I did a class paper on witchcraft. This fascination led me to write paranormal stories. There’s my first novel, Twice Bitten, and “Love Bites,” a short story appearing in When the Clock Strikes Thirteen. And there’s more on the way.
I’ve hosted and attended costume parties and had pumpkin-carving dinners. My costumes over the years have included Pocahontas, a pirate, and a pregnant nun. I’ve decorated my abodes as haunted houses and, dressed as a demon, jumped out at frightened children from behind my gate (actually, New York City children are so jaded that they barely blinked). And I look forward to the classic horror movie marathons on TV like some people look forward to opening presents on Christmas Day. I love Halloween in all its layers of history, traditions, and celebrations.
I hope you all have a great Halloween and go do some trick-or-treating. And, why not? On Halloween, we’re all kids at heart.