I have often wondered what exactly Halloween is. The first time I encountered it was when I came to Canada and settled on a street full of families with children. Where I grew up, I never saw or heard of this holiday, and when I asked my husband, who was born and bred in Canada, he responded that he really did not know what it was all about, only that children go dressed up as goblins and witches to trick-or-treat, and receive candy. He himself, it turns out, was never allowed to do so, but was the one handing out the candy to the children and adults that called. For some reason, I never gave a second thought to this strange habit, in my eyes, and when our kids demanded we accompany them trick-or-treating, we followed the spirit of the day as we saw it, and put on some rags to trample through the neighborhood.
It is always on the 31st
of October, when the evenings are starting to be bitter cold, and if you are lucky, there is no rain. Some of the houses in our street, and especially in the adjacent street, were decorated with carved pumpkins and candles inside, others were truly haunted houses with visual and sound effects meant to scare and amuse the children, as well as some of the adults. Some homes even had big vats filled with apples floating in red liquid for the kids to play bobbing for apples. Daring to place their face into the liquid, and bring up an apple with their teeth. One of us had to stay home to hand out candy to those who knocked at our door. The rest of us usually arrived home with a common sack filled with the night’s loot. Then the ritual began.
You see, we are Jewish, and keep Kosher, so the content of the bag was spread out on the living room rug, and the sorting began. One pile for the candy with Kosher insignia, the other with the “forbidden” candy. Do not for a moment think this is a simple task. There are at least 7 symbols for Kosher products in north America. If that is not enough, there is also the distinction between the ones that contain milk products and are designated D for dairy, and those that are designated Parve, which means you can have them after a meal containing meat. We would spend at least an hour or two, depending on the evening’s take, on sorting. Then the Kosher pile was distributed evenly among all the kids. The rest would be designated to go to the neighborhood kids, and sometimes, without our knowledge, to be traded for Kosher ones.
For some reason this year, without small kids on the street any more, and with grown children and grandchildren who are far away, I decided finally to find out what this holiday is all about. By looking in the dictionary (yes, we still have books), I only found that it is the night of the 31st
of October, followed by All Saints’ Day. Then I found an interesting essay by one of my favorite Canadian authors, Robertson Davies, “Haunted by Halloween”
, which was published in the New York Times, October 31, 1990. I learned that it was actually an old Celtic holiday to celebrate the death of the year. In Celtic culture the year was divided in two. On the 1st
of May the Feast of Beltane celebrated the return of the sun, with bonfires on the hills. All spring and summer the earth was worked, crops were sown, fruit trees bloomed, and the sun shone on the earth. Then came the harvest times, and by the end of October, the days were shorter, the crops were in, and the time had come for the death of the year to be celebrated by the Feast of Samhain, a two-day affair, celebrated after sundown, which became what are celebrated today as Halloween on Oct.31 and All Saints’ Day on Nov. 1.
When Christianity was adopted as the religion and culture of the land, the old Celtic customs were incorporated, but given a different flavor. The Celtic custom of honoring and remembering their ancestors on Samhain was replaced by the Christian remembrance of All Souls and the following All Saints’ Day. And the witches, goblins and bats? They are souls that we sinned against, and come to take their revenge. “There have always been people who give no regard to their forbears, and it was they who were thought in the days of the old Celtic religion to suffer on Halloween. That was the night when the spirits of the neglected or affronted dead took vengeance on their unworthy descendants.” They are not always careful, and can not always recognize who is running around on the streets, so you’d better not go out in the dark, since they may mistake you for people they are taking revenge on. When I was driven home yesterday by a young woman from Haiti, I asked her “Is Halloween part of your tradition?” She recoiled and answered “No ma’am, we never go out on that night. It is dangerous. Souls and witches are roaming in the dark and may harm you. I think these people here are not good Christians.” Perhaps that is why there are lights in the carved scary pumpkins. They are there to scare away the ghosts, not the kids, and to light up the night so the spirits will not mistake us for their enemies.
Perhaps the idea of Trick-or-Treat developed from the Soul cakes that were given to the children who went “souling” from door to door (respecting the souls of the departed). In ‘modern times’ people rejected the superstitions of the previous generations, and the door-to-door activity became one of fun and pranks. Unfortunately, in our generation, this was sometimes dangerous, due to the poisoning of candy. There is again fear in the air. This time not from ghosts (or poison candy, or razor blades in apples), but from becoming infected with COVID-19. The pandemic curtailed last year’s celebration, and even tonight there was not even one knock on our door, though some of the houses on our street were decorated with pumpkins, lights, and billowing white nightgowns.
Perhaps we need to return to the old idea of using the opportunity to remember and respect our ancestors, and as Robertson Davis said, “Let us recognize that we are not the ultimate triumph but rather we are beads on a string. Let us behave with decency to the beads that were strung before us, and hope modestly that the beads that come after us will not hold us of no account merely because we are dead.” Instead of handing out candy, we should involve our children and tell them of their grandparents, and whatever we know and respect and are grateful for. We come from all sorts of different backgrounds, but we all come from somewhere, and would not be here today without our predecessors. Learning about our past, even if it includes painful events, helps heal inter-generational trauma. One of the people I respect, Terry Real, talks about past-generational trauma as a forest fire that keeps spreading, until we have the courage to face it and start putting it out. It may be painful, it may take hard work, but our children will inherit a healed past. I know from experience that there are some seeds that can only grow into beautiful trees after fire opens them up and the rain that follows helps them take root and grow. When we consider where we came from, we can better appreciate who we are, and perhaps transmit to the next generation a clearer roadmap to follow.