Thursday, October 20, 2005

Hallowe'en and other urban legends

I was going to go to Snopes anyway, to find something about the topic of "poisoned candy" and "razor bladed apples" with regard to Hallowe'en. But on the way there, I found this, which, as G. B. Shaw would say, is too true to be good.

Right. Well, I'd mentioned before the horror some in this country have for Halloween. I don't know how far back this goes; certainly Ray Bradbury was writing about it during my childhood ("Usher II" and "Pillar of Fire" being two examples that come to mind), but his childhood seems to have been remarkably untainted by concerns with "satanic practices" or even poisoned candy associated with the holiday. So perhaps the paranoia is of a more recent vintage. It certainly seems to be connected more with the fundamentalist fantasies of Jack Chick than anything in the real world. Which I suspect is the root of the antipathy and fear this holiday seems to produce: that is, it has an anti-Roman Catholic root.

Per New Advent, the on-line Catholic encyclopedia (which I tend to take as authoritative in these matters), Hallowe'en is the vigil for All Saint's Day. According to American, the holiday is connected to Christianity through the Celtic church. That much is largely a familiar story, although I didn't credit the Romans enough in this connection. They adopted the Celtic festival of Samhain into their own feasts and celebrations, which would explain why it spread across Europe and came to America. But it also explains the antipathy it would generate among some Protestants.

I have two good books on Christmas, and I often blur the information from them in memory. One is Stephen Nissenbaum's The Battle for Christmas, and the other is Penne Restad's Christmas in America. But from one of those two excellent histories I know that Christmas was banned by the Puritans in America, in large part because it was "too Papist." Hallowe'en, of course, never had such explicitly Christian trappings as Christmas (even the "-mas" on the end was too much for American Puritans, as it is simply a corruption of the Latin "mass."), but of late it has come in for criticism remarkably similar to the diatribes against Christmas that resounded in this country until, well, until Clement Moore's "The Night Before Christmas."

Which is another story.

The celebration of the dead that is part of Hallowe'en and Samhain before it was, apparently, a celebration of life, not morbidity (much like the Mexican Dios de los Muertos, another festival Bradbury was writing about long before Mexican culture reached the tipping point in American culture). The Celtic (pre-Christian) belief was that the souls of the departed were always near, and that certain places ('holy ground') were "thin places" where the two worlds, theirs and ours, touched. Samhain was a time, like such places, when the "veil" was "thin," and so ancestors could visit and be near. It wasn't a time of horror (pace "Bald Mountain") but of comfort. (Indeed, a good argument can be made that much of the "horror" about ghosts and "evil spirits" is a paradoxical result of Romantic attempts to preserve the very folklore from which those stories arise. Divorced from its communal tap root, such stories soon withered into nightmare and terror; but that's also another story).

But now, of course, the day is a night, and the night is a celebration of candy and consumerism; and the fear, is the fear of the Other. Which is pretty well covered in these two Snopes articles: one about "poisoned candy," the other about "razor bladed apples." I'm still inclined to more skepticism about the story than Snopes is; the razor blades stories seem to be justified, per Snopes, on the basis of news reports, the same kind of reports that spread spurious fears of poisoned candy every year.

If I was of a more cynical turn of mind, I'd say such things were orchestrated by candy manufacturers, working assiduously to convince us that pre-packaged candy (despite the case of Timothy O'Brien and Tylenol) is safer than homemade goodies, or healthy food like apples, for that matter. I can remember houses in my childhood neighborhood where the "treats" were homemade: candy apples, popcorn balls, cookies, brownies, etc. Today, no parent would let their child keep such items: they would be discarded immediately. And no one would give them out, for fear of becoming a pariah within minutes, as word spread literally on the street about the suspicious goodies. I even remember houses where people turned rooms into Halloween chambers and invited children in to enjoy the atmosphere and take food off plates. Again, no one would let their child cross that threshold today.

Which is partly a product of our modern era, with stories of kidnappings on street corners (although the number of children taken by strangers is probably lower than the number struck by lightning or meteors), and partly a product of the drumbeat of fears about the "satanic" nature of the holiday. And it's all a pity: the Hallowe'en of Bradbury's childhood memories is almost as foreign to us now as the Christmas of Dicken's memories.

And we are all, as a culture, poorer for that loss.

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