My Top Five Halloween “Treats”

#1: Memories

*Witchy me,
without mask*

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.

#3: History

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.

#4: Family

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?

Happy Halloween!

6 Comments

  1. I vaguely remember you talking to us as kids about Halloween costumes being a way to try out different versions of yourself you might like to be. I’d almost forgotten it because it’s so commonplace to think of Halloween as a totally secular/commercial holiday nowadays, especially as adults. I think it’s cool that you still see something spiritual and meaningful in it.

    • Thanks, Jordan. Yes, the “dressing up” always was somewhat profound to me — I realize for a lot of people it’s just for fun, and I like that, too. Sometimes people come up with the most creative costumes that way! But I always like to step into a different identity — even as an adult, my costumes often are that way: Once a wily, streetwise Tabby Cat, and once The French Lieutenant’s Woman, mysterious and tragic, in my 20s; lots of variations on The Fairy and The Witch in my 30s; Gerda’s faithful reindeer from “The Snow Queen,” and The Fortune-teller in my 40s; and, lately, I’ve gone back to my witchy stand-by, when I bother transform at all. LOL!

  2. Hi Virginia
    It was nice to read the story. Halloween isn’t big is Australia but this year there were quite a few costumed kids wandering the neighbourhood and it made me happy. I thought about wax lips and candy corn. Simple pleasures.
    Joan

    • Trick-or-treating seems to be shifting to late afternoon in the shopping areas here — going store-to-store, instead of door-to-door. It’s cute and fun — kids on parade — but a totally different experience than the one I remember. I did (of course) love collecting candy. I’d forgotten about those wax lips! Yum! Almost as much fun as collecting it, though, was going home afterward, dumping it all out, and sorting it into the piles, trading for your favorite things. But when I looked back, rather to my surprise, I found that the memories I treasured most weren’t actually about the treats. It was about being outside at night, running free, dressing up, manifesting my magical inclinations, if only for one night. There are still a couple of neighborhoods in Bellingham where the kids turn out in force after dark, but for most of us, it’s a smattering only. My kids did both (the stores and the next-doors). And I know they got their share of wandering around outdoors after dark at other times of the year, in other settings and circumstances, like camping, or having parties over here that slopped over into the great outdoors.

  3. Quite beautiful, Virginia. Just the right note to take my mind off ritual shoveling over-priced candy out the door. Actually, it hasn’t been bad; the kiddos and costumes have been adorable. A ghost from the past I’d love to talk to again? You nailed it: my parents, especially my dad. Be reincarnated? Into . . . ANYONE in the (hopefully near, near) future when some sanity has managed to return to our world. I so miss the innocence.

    • I like having trick-or-treaters, but that’s probably because we don’t get many over in this neck of the woods! I do love the “baby parade” of costumed tots! (Mark suggests that next year we get a travel trailer and park it over in your neighborhood so I can hand out candy to my heart’s content!)

      And I know what you mean about the loss of … well, maybe not innocence so much as genuine idealism. I want to see a return of faithfulness to the ideals of democratic elections, representative government, equal justice under the law, the essential job of the Fourth Estate, and the concept of a “public good” we all are committed to seeking together and supporting. It’s not that in the past those things were manifest — but it seemed like more people believed they were possible.

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