Me, five years old, all witchy-ed up, including a truly impressive grimacing mask, which my mother had worn thirty-some years earlier.
“What an ugly witch you are!” a neighbor exclaims.
“Thank you,” I reply primly, holding out my jack o’ lantern goodie bucket.
I was a shy, timid child. Halloween was the chance to become fierce and bold. In those days, it seemed to me that witches derived some of their power from being ugly, so I was glad to trade out “cute” in order to be strong.
Already an iconoclast, at such a tender age!
#2: The Wild Night
I still love to walk at night, seeing the neighbors who aren’t out during the day: the possum trundling across the road, the raccoon ducking into the ditch, the buck raising his antlered head at my approach. Or hearing the clip-clup of hooves down the street ahead of me, or the “bustle in the hedgerow.” Or watching the bunnies bound away from my flashlight’s beam. I love to hear the owls calling, and breathe air that is crisp and clean and cool.
Fall’s first cold nights were in late October in the Deep South, where I grew up. I loved the crunch of dry leaves on the road, the thrill of the wind tossing them around, the moonlight and shadows. Once I was old enough to go trick-or-treating with my friends, no parents in tow, there was a wild freedom to it. We were never far from the warm light of indoors, but outside at night, the stars glittered behind the moving clouds and tree branches; the smell of earth and dying leaves filled the air. If we weren’t flying from house to house, it felt like it.
Once I was a bit older, I found the origin story of Halloween. It was, in the old, old days, the Celtic holiday Samhain (pronounced “sow-in”), which bore more resemblance to the Mexican holiday, the “Day of the Dead.” The idea was that the veil between the living and the dead was drawn back on Samhain, and we could communicate with those who had passed over. Later, the idea that goblins and trolls, demons and devils, came out on this night was introduced by early Christians. The idea then was the “All Hallow’s Eve” was the eve of All Saints Day — kind of a last hurrah for the dark spirits.
Today, I think of my beloved dead: my parents, my brother, and many others. To imagine, for a moment, that I might hear from them again, perhaps through some sacred dance or ritual, helps me understand what was holy about this day for those ancient Celts.
My mom loved all holidays, and our house was decorated with ornaments and black cut-out silhouettes passed down at least one generation on both sides of the family. Owls and black cats predominated, in our cat-and-bird-loving family, but there was a good smattering of goblins, witches, and ghosts mixed in.
My dad loved this holiday especially. He was fond of scary stories, too – not “horror,” a la Stephen King, but the spooky ghost stories, about things that go bump in the night, like those of M. R. James, or H. P. Lovecraft — perhaps more in the tradition of Edgar Allen Poe. My dad’s artistic side, rarely revealed, came out in the spooky silhouettes of demons and devils he put up around the house.
My kids’ favorite costumes make me smile. When they were small, we liked to have themes: princess and jester, witch and pumpkin. One memorable year, the seven-year-old was a ladybug and the three-year-old a bee. Cute as the kids were, the neighbors will never forget my firefly costume — a dignified black top and pants topped with subtle black antennae; the wings were all but invisible — but when we turned to leave, they were doubtless startled by the flashing white Christmas-tree lights I’d sewn to my butt!
#5: New Identity
Perhaps thanks to my Quaker upbringing, I now think of Halloween as a kind of “second New Year’s” – an opportunity to reflect on how I might like to change. If, like a five-year-old, I could “be” someone or something else for one night, what would I be?
A cat? Graceful and quick, dwelling very much in the present moment, nocturnal, yet affectionate and loyal. Who wouldn’t want to spend at least one night as a cat? (In our family, cats are so prized and coddled, we often wistfully wish that if reincarnated, we might come back as a cat belonging to one of our descendants. Rather a nice idea. Perhaps my beloved Sinbad was once my great-great-great grandfather, the abolitionist, now reaping the rewards of a life well-lived ?) A good reason, if you believe in karma, to be kind to cats!
A wise woman? Yes, The Witch still looms large in my list of not-so-altered alter egos. The ones called “witches” were often the wise women who knew the herbal lore of healing, how to bring forth a healthy child, mend a broken heart, or shore up a flagging will. Mom, Sister, Aunt and Grandmother tasks, all.
An owl? Magical, wise, powerful — the nobility of the night skies. With soft wings to soar soundlessly in the dark, and eyes and ears so keen they could find a field mouse thirty feet below, imagine the mysteries I could detect from the night sky . . .
A super-hero? Ah, yes. Here’s where the truth comes out. Yes, part of me does want to bring the wicked to justice – or at least to stop the harm they are doing. Wouldn’t it be nice, too, to be able to read minds and hearts with perfect accuracy, so you’d know just who to stop, before they acted?
Think about it: Who would you be?