Witch and ghost make merry on this last of dear October’s days…
Every holiday has its own traditions. Most are well-known, such as hanging a stocking from the mantle in hopes of receiving deodorant and dental floss (just me?), while others are more obscure and not quite as famous (like the dental floss thing…). Most are familiar and comfortable, as they have become second nature and welcome to us year after year, while some border on the…well…bizarre.
Probably no other annual holiday makes more sense for the strange and unusual than Halloween. I recall growing up that there was a family in our neighborhood who lined several coffins up in their living room, leaving the front door open with a sign reading “Enter – If You Dare”. Once inside, the brave of heart found the room candlelit and empty except for the coffins, emblazoned with more signs that said “Free Candy”. Each coffin contained a member of the house’s family, holding a bowl of treats. Although we knew in our hearts that the bodies inside weren’t really dead, it still sent a chill down our young spines. See, the trick was to have enough nerve to approach, take candy, and get out, hoping that one of the “corpses” didn’t spring to life before you made your getaway. The anticipation was often almost more than we could bear, and occasionally one of our gang of trick or treaters would panic and flee, forfeiting confections in favor of not having to endure the torment. Understand, these were FULL SIZE candy bars we’re talking about. Not little packs of candy corn – regular over-the-candy-counter portions!
The next day it was the talk of the neighborhood, and the stories became more and more embellished with repeated tellings: of how Robbie watched for fifteen minutes and none of the bodies ever breathed. Or of how Jack reached in for candy, and when the body inside grabbed his hand it was icy cold and clammy. And better yet, of how when Vic leaned in for a closer look at one of the residents, he saw the faint trace of a skeletal visage pass over the face before the eyes quickly opened wide to reveal nothing but blackness. Within a few days, the tales ran rampant – mostly made up or exaggerated to the point of the ridiculous – and we were already determined to witness our own supernatural occurrence, planning our strategy for next Halloween. We were such suckers for that gag, and year after year we returned for more. Eventually the family moved away and was replaced by a normal old couple who just handed out chocolate bars. Miniature candy bars. Bite size. Our tradition was over.
But to this day, if you mention Halloween, I can’t help but think of those cool autumn evenings spent walking back and forth in front of that tiny house, mustering up the courage to take another shot at local legend hood. And in that way, I guess it still lingers on as my tradition. At its base, that is what tradition is – an opportunity to capture a feeling or event that means something special to us, that evokes comfort or happiness, or guards memories that quite often are far more grand than the actual moment they represent. For some, however, they present protection and peace of mind. A security blanket against the unknown or unimaginable. In many parts of the world, Halloween traditions in particular provide this for the superstitious. While the basic meaning behind the holiday is fairly standard across the board, how people celebrate it around the globe and what it means differs greatly from what we may consider routine…
For instance, it was once believed by the Welsh and Celtics that on October 31, the ghosts of dead relatives would visit their living family members and friends. The Celtics took to wearing masks and costumes in order to avoid being recognized by these visitors from beyond.
In Japan, many celebrate the O-Bon, from July 13 – 15 (some celebrate it from October 13 – 15). During this time the graves of relatives are decorated with fruit, cakes and lanterns, and many gather for a slow hypnotic dance known as the Bon-odori.
Teng Chieh – or The Feast of the Hungry Ghosts, as it is known – is the celebration of Chinese Halloween. Taking place in July, the Chinese people believe that soon the gate to the underworld will open, and offer food and drink in front of photographs of deceased family members. Lanterns are lit so that the dead may easily find their way back to the world of the living.
In Germany, people put away all knives at Halloween, in order to keep from hurting returning spirits.
Italy’s Halloween custom involves baking cakes in the shape of beans – known as Beans of the Dead.
In Poland, doors and windows are left open to welcome the visiting spirits of loved ones.
The Northern Irish once sprinkled their children’s heads with oatmeal and salt, as a way of warding off fairies which would come to claim the sleeping youngsters. They believed the fairies to be fallen angels, bent on harming others on Halloween night.
Regardless of the locale, Halloween is rife with traditions – many based upon superstitions. Throughout the years people developed some rather unusual ideas about the holiday and the other-worldly presence it summoned. It was once believed that if you heard footsteps behind you on Halloween, you must not turn around, or you would find yourself looking face to face with Death. At one time some thought that wearing your clothes inside out and walking backwards would place you in the path of a witch. Some legends claim that if you see a spider on Halloween, it is actually the spirit of a loved one looking in on you. Bonfires became a staple of All’s Hallow for some, and fires were lit to stave off the unknown. It was believed that if your home fire were to go out on Halloween, evil could gain entry to your house – if your fire flame turned blue, a visitor from beyond had already found its way in.
To this day tradition is a very important part of the Halloween holiday, particularly for those who find it their favorite time of the year. Whether it’s an evening filled with beloved scary movies, or a costume party with friends, or a twilight tour of haunted hot spots, October 31st holds a very dear place in all of our hearts.
So if you’re looking for a new tradition to mark the occasion this year, try your hand at your own bean-shaped baked goods, or wear your costume inside out and stroll in reverse. But take it from me – if you’d like to avoid having your windows soaped, go with full-size candy bars, and avoid handing out floss…