546: “Why I Still Love Halloween,” Cindy LaFerle captures its enduring wonders


OMETIMES, we republish particularly popular stories like this one from last year by writer Cindy LaFerle.

Recently, we published a special cross-cultural look at Halloween from Jewish and Muslim friends.
    That story prompted reader Anne Wilson from Denver to Email our Home Office, asking for help on finding “that OTHER Halloween story you had with some old-fashioned pictures and about Scottish lore. … I want to send it to a friend and can’t find it.”
    Well, Anne—you’re not alone in recalling this delightful holiday piece. (As Halloween nears again, we’ve also got coverage of the “holiday weekend” in this week’s “Spiritual Season” column.)
    And, for your continued enjoyment, here is …



From ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties,

And things that go bump in the night,

Good lord, deliver us!
    A Scottish saying

always stirs a delicious cauldron of memories.
    Baby boomers are a
nostalgic bunch, and most of us can recall at least one costume we wore
in grade school. Wearing yards of pink tulle and a homemade foil crown,
I dressed up as Miss America when I was in the first grade in 1960. And
who could forget trick-or-treating in packs until our pillowcases were
too heavy to lug around the block?
    While the holiday suffered a lull in the 1970s, the “season of the
witch” now competes with Christmastime as the biggest party season of
the year. And with all due respect to religious groups refusing to
celebrate it, I never thought of Halloween as inherently evil.
    In fact, I always felt a little sad for one of my son’s
grade-school pals, whose born-again Christian parents refused to let
him wear a costume, attend Halloween parties, or go trick-or-treating
with the neighborhood kids on Halloween night. While I respected the
family’s religious devotion, I disagreed with their conviction that the
holiday’s pre-Christian history was a threat to their faith. (I wanted
to remind them that Christmas trees and Easter baskets also boasted
pre-Christian, pagan origins. But I kept my mouth shut.)

    British and Irish historians are also quick to remind us that “All
Hallows Eve” did not originate as a gruesome night of devil worship—though I’ll be the first to admit that American retailers, film
producers, and merchants who cash in on Halloween are guilty of adding
their own mythology—and gore. Regardless, in my view, what most of
us seem to enjoy about the holiday is the creativity factor.
    Stepping over age limits, Halloween extends an open invitation to
play dress-up. It inspires us to raid attics and local thrift shops for
the most outlandish outfits we can jumble together. If only for one
magical night, it gives us permission to drop the dull disguise of
    For flea-market junkies like me, Halloween is reason enough to
hoard pieces of vintage clothing and jewelry that, by all rights,
should have been donated to charity ages ago. My husband now refers to
our attic as “the clothing museum,” and with good reason. Friends who
have trouble rustling up an outfit will often call for help during
dress-up emergencies. (“Can I borrow one of your medieval jester hats
for a clown costume?” is not an unusual request.) Over the years, in
fact, I’ve collected so many crazy hats that we have to store them in a
large steamer trunk behind the living room couch. Those hats get the
most wear near Halloween, when even the most reserved engineer who
visits will try on a pith helmet or a plumed pirate hat and wear it to
the dinner table.
    And why not? Historically speaking, the holiday has always been a
celebration of the harvest, a madcap prelude to the more dignified
ceremonials of Thanksgiving.

    Halloween’s deep roots weave back
more than 2,000 years to the early Celts of Ireland, Scotland, and
Wales. It was originally known as the festival of Samhain, according to
Caitlin Matthews, a Celtic scholar and author of The Celtic Book of Days
(Destiny Books).
The festival, she explains, marked the end of the
farming season and the beginning of the Celtic new year. Lavish banquet
tables were prepared for the ancestors, who were believed to pierce the
veil between the living and the dead on the eve of Samhain. It was also
time to rekindle the bonfires that would sustain the clans in winter.
    “In the Christian era,” Matthews writes, “the festival was
reassigned to the Feast of All Saints; however, many of the customs
surrounding modern Halloween still concern this ancient understanding
of the accessibility of the dead.”
    And we can thank our Irish immigrants for the jack-o’-lantern,
which reputedly wards off evil spirits. This custom evolved from the
old practice of carving out large turnips and squash, then illuminating
them with candles. The term jack-o’-lantern was derived from a folk
tale involving a crafty Irishman named Jack, who outwitted the Devil.
    On cool October nights, when the moon is bright and leaves scatter
nervously across the sidewalk, a bittersweet chill runs up and down my
spine. I like to recall a favorite quote from Ray Bradbury, whose
affection for Halloween surpasses even mine: “If you enjoy living, it
is not difficult to keep the sense of mystery and wonder.”
    And I think of my beloved Scottish grandparents, who left their
exhausted farms in the Orkney Islands to begin new lives in United
States in the 1920s. I recall the knee-cracking highland folk dances
they taught me, and the silly lyrics to their rural old-country tunes.
I remember their hard-won wisdom, and how much I still miss their love.
    Like my Celtic ancestors, I’m moved to take stock of my own
“harvest” — how much I’ve accomplished throughout the year, and how
many things I’ve left undone. My to-do list is yards long. There are
parts of the world I haven’t seen; stories I haven’t written; debts and
favors to repay. I marvel at the mellow beauty of the season, which has
always been my favorite, but also feel a little sad that one more year
is drawing to its close.
    All said and done, I like to think of Halloween as the big good-bye
party we throw for autumn’s final weeks. And a toast to the year ahead.
All in good fun. 

    Cindy La Ferle is a nationally published essayist and author of Writing Home,
an award-winning collection of essays celebrating home and family life,
distributed to bookstores by Wayne State University Press. Visit her web site: www.laferle.com
    Cindy visited ReadTheSpirit earlier with a story about her appreciation for Anne Morrow Lindbergh.


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