When I reminisce about the happier times of my childhood, I always return to the holidays. Really, there’s just one in particular: Halloween. It’s hard not to get excited about the coming of Halloween when you’re a kid because practically everything about the holiday itself is geared specifically at kids–at least it was in the ’70s.
The first real spark of joy I would experience over Halloween had more to do with the anticipation one gets at the onset of autumn, as shadows grow tall in the waning afternoon. That spark would turn into real enthusiasm as my mother and I would take the city bus downtown to get peanut kisses wrapped in magic black and orange wax paper. The second, and more important, memory I have of Halloween occurred during the autumn of fifth or sixth grade, when my mother raised more than just a few eyebrows in the neighborhood by adorning the front door with a straw wreath. It was a simpler wreath than a conventional Christmas one, with only an orange ribbon twisting around it to decorate the flaxen colored circle, ending with a bow at the bottom. But what really set it apart was the witch. In the middle of the wreath, brandishing a straw broom, and dressed up in an orange and black hood and cape, sat a perfect gray-haired holiday hag, smiling mischievously at all passers-by. It was not just a wreath. It was a Halloween wreath. Perhaps now, the thought of such a decoration probably wouldn’t even get noticed, but in 1976-77, it was quite uncommon.
The wreath was soon joined by some jointed skeletons and a pumpkin-headed scarecrow in the front window. These went nicely with my brother’s plastic Halloween lanterns that were purchased at the local drugstore for a couple of bucks each. One was an orange, sinister-looking haunted house on a rocky crag and the other was a somewhat spooked-looking ghost carrying a jack-o-lantern, the latter lamp being one of the more popular (and few) decorations of the time. There would soon be more to follow.
These days, my mother revels in inviting over neighborhood children and the members of her women’s group at church to delight in all of the haunted treasures. Usually, this happens after the large, mummified arm busting out of the front yard is removed, so as not to frighten the little ones too much.
Today, Halloween is big business. There’s no end to the number of high-priced “collectibles” on eBay, or to the number of websites dedicated to the holiday. None of which has escaped the notice–and ire–of my family. Halloween also has undergone a significant “cleaning up” within recent years as well. Stuffed Winnie-the-Pooh characters emulating classic Universal monster movies such as Frankenstein and The Mummy are frightening, all right, though not in the way they were intended to be. High priced decorations and cookie cutters adorn the pages of Martha Stewart’s Living, while Restoration Hardware offers life-sized skeletons for a mere $139.
What I’m all for is the rise in awareness of Halloween’s pagan birth. Throughout history, Halloween has existed (in essence) as a celebration of the dead, and hope for the coming winter. It’s highly doubtful that the same folks pulling out their Garfield decorative holiday flags are aware that they are building on a tradition that started with a Druid festival dedicated to Samhain, the Celtic Lord of the Dead. If we can push the shadowy origins hard enough, maybe people will abandon all their treasured ghouls and witches with all the immediacy of practicing wiccans during the trials of Salem. Maybe it’s already happening. People protested the Harry Potter movies as being satanic, so perhaps they’re about ready to hang Jack O’Lantern out to dry as well. Then my family can proudly reclaim our holiday from Martha Stewart.