Fall is our favorite time of the year. Cool weather, gorgeous color, and, of course, Halloween. It is our Christmas. Halloween has its roots with an ancient Samhain, which is the time of year when the boundary between the living and the dead thins. The Druids built huge bonfires and the Celts wore costumes of animal heads and skins, and were told fortunes.
Ancient pagan Samhain had a long association with the dead, but that started to change when Christianity spread, both absorbing and supplanting older rites across Europe. Samhain became All Saints Day or All-hallowmas, and the night before it, the traditional night of Samhain, began to be called All-hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween. Even so, the connection to the world of the dead couldn’t be completely removed from the holiday.
When the holiday came to America in the 18th and 19th centuries primarily via Irish and Gaelic immigrants, it was altered by dominant conservative Protestant beliefs. It came with traditional wariness of the dead, ghost stories, fortune telling, and mischief making. In America, it also came to feature the carving of pumpkins (a step up from turnips in the Old Country) to create jack o’lanterns to light the way for “trick or treating” or scare off the spirits of the dead. By the turn of the 20th century, there was a movement to take the most frightening or grotesque or mystical elements out of Halloween.
In the 1920’s and 30’s, Halloween turned into more of a community-centered holiday with parades and private parties, but the “trick” element degraded into frequent acts of vandalism. In the early days of the Baby Boom after World War II, Halloween devolved into a holiday aimed primarily at young children. The dead were rendered safe by turning them into smiling cardboard skeletons or laughable ghosts made of bedsheets. The streets were rendered safe from mischief by trying to keep teen-agers out of it. Once you reached your teen-age years, you were too old for Halloween. No more dressing up; no more trick or treating. That was kid’s stuff. However, the tide changed in the later decades of the 20th century with aging Baby Boomers rediscovering their childhood joys and recharging a new Halloween industry. Now, all ages participate in Halloween in a big way with parties and decorations.
At the Griffith house, we are a proud part of the Halloween lovers. Monster movies, which are always routine here, get ramped up. We don’t dress up in costumes very often anymore nor carry pillowcases around to the neighbors’ houses to gather candy. However on the night itself, we wait patiently for kids to come knocking on the door and shout “trick or treat”. Unfortunately it doesn’t happen very often. We live in an older neighborhood with few kids and we’re just too far off a normal route. Still, we plan for visitors by decorating.
We decorate outside and inside, some years a little, some years a lot. Jack o’lanterns are a longtime tradition for us. We try to take a trip to the mountains on a cool fall day to buy pumpkins, straight from the field if possible. We each create our own jack o’lantern. Susan’s is always swell-planned and expertly carved. Clay’s is a slipshod horror that results from carving while drinking (not recommended for safety reasons). In general, our decorations are not about the gruesome and gore that seems to crowd the Halloween stores. We’re more about ambiance. Cool colors, creepy setting, and disturbing tableaus. It is our endeavor to bring a sense of dread to those who walk up to the house. Of course, we’re not above (or below) slipping a few screamers in the bushes or putting out a classic like the headless horseman or going with some festive pumpkin lights. Whatever strikes up the mood.
The inside of the house evokes a more macabre scene. Though most never see the inside. Bottles of ancient poison, well used candles, and grimacing skulls sit on the tables. Silhouettes of mice creep along the stairs while dark ravens hunch over random décor.
One constant is that we always put out a graveyard. Gravestones and an abandoned lantern to give it that tender touch. Not to mention someone digging their way free. Graveyards have always been a thing with us. We like walking through them, at night if possible. We don’t fear being among the dead. If anything, they comfort us. Cemeteries are maps through history that always beckons us. We go to pay our respect and also to learn from the past. People leave a legacy and sometimes it’s written in stone.
For us, Halloween is still a celebration for the dead, a chance to be that much closer to those who have gone before us. But it’s still a scary night because – what if they come back to be close to us?
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