Let us remember the dead: the saints (‘hallows’ in liturgical language), martyrs, and all those others, now faithfully departed. The celebration of All Hallows Eve—better now known as Halloween—is likely rooted in the pagan harvest festivals of the Celtic people (or so believes this proud diaspora Scot). The harvest is in and it’s the onset of winter, the death of all the bounty of summer, a time of sober retreat and reflection. Or think of it like this: Halloween is the closing parenthesis to the cycle of life that opened around the time of the vernal equinox, the time we annually celebrate that other pagan spirit: Ëostre, goddess of spring
Well that’s all well and good, you say, but come on: what’s really important about Halloween are the black cats, the witches and goblins, and my favorite: the jack-o’ lanterns. Like so many other wonderful things, jack-o’lanterns originated in Scotland where folks carved scary faces into turnips, rutabagas, or potatoes, placing them in windows or on doorsteps to scare away Stingy Jack and all the other evil spirits that were sometimes seen in the strange light flickering over the peat bogs. It wasn’t until those same Scots arrived over here in the New World and found a far bigger, better tuber to carve up that Jack assumed its present form: cue the famous orange cultivar of the squash plant, our friend the beloved pumpkin!
So yesterday, my wife and I went over to Kingstown to stock up on gourds and pumpkins to decorate the porch. I pawed through the large and small pumpkins on display but she gravitated to the terra-cotta versions. “They won’t rot and stain the porch,” she explained.
“But where will we store them after Halloween?” I asked. (Our house is small; there’s not a lot of storage space. In fact, there’s not a lot of any kind of space. That’s why we call our house Standing Room Only.)
“On your side of the bed,” she said matter-of-factly. A lot of our discussions end like that.
There was clearly only one way out of this difference of Halloween opinion so naturally we returned home with a terra cotta pumpkin, a real pumpkin, and several small gourds to add a bit of color to the autumnal still-life that now decorates the porch. It seems a bit of a stretch from a somber celebration of all those dearly departed saints and martyrs, but that’s how we roll.
And then there’s the candy. All that candy. Lots and lots of candy. Reese’s and Snickers and Milky Ways and my friend Bea’s favorite: candy corn. But how do we account for all that candy? Where does candy fit in Halloween’s story? Simple: far back in the Celtic mist, there existed an old tradition of ‘mumming and guising,’ people going from house to house, often disguised as spirits, singing songs or reciting verses in exchange for food. Those good folk who gifted food could expect good fortune; those who didn’t were likely to experience misfortune. Maybe it was just a way of more evenly distributing the fruits of the harvest or possibly a creative method to help the offspring of those who had recently departed, but whatever the original motivation, it’s easy to see that mumming and guising is the likely ancestral DNA of modern trick or treating.
My wife doesn’t particularly like Halloween. It’s not the candy; she likes candy well enough. She says Halloween is just too competitive, that coming up with a new costume every year is exhausting. Personally, I think maybe it’s the spookiness, or, as my Scots would say, the ghoulies and ghosties, the long-legged beasties, and all the other things that go bump in the night that gives her a fright.
At least the ones on her side of the bed.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” will be released in June 2018. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com