I don’t know if the most memorable aspect of April Ludgate’s character on Parks & Rec was that she designed her own major called Halloween Studies, but it was a standout point for me, probably because if I could have done it and been employable, I definitely would have.
I love Halloween, mostly because it’s a holiday that our Western culture needs desperately but has largely abandoned. And I 100% lament that, because we need a holiday to connect us with death – not only death as a separation from loved ones, or death as the horrifying great equalizer, but the death that lives in the core of every single one of us.
Against my better judgment, I’ve recently been catching up on Bones now that it’s (finally) over. In a later episode, Brennan made an astute point when Booth was upset she was talking about death so matter of factly with their child – that the more open you are about death as a society, the less anxiety there is about it. And that is a great point regarding our general approach toward life, as well as our approach toward celebrations in the spirit of Halloween.
As a Western society in general we’re pretty terrified of death, and you only have to look at our obsession with anti-aging everything to figure that out. And we’ve done ourselves a great disservice in sucking the spirit of Halloween completely dry over the last few decades – and on some level, we know it. I’ve seen far more about Dia de los Muertos this year than I ever have before, possibly because we’re drawn to a holiday that allows and encourages us to draw to close death and look at it without shame – and Dia de los Muertos gives us that.
(Or at least it does in its original native incarnation. Westernizing it is doing the same to it as we’ve already done to Halloween, only with a million more moral implications.)
There’s a fine line for a lot of people here between honoring death and being brave enough to stare it in the face that I think a lot of religious America has gotten more and more preoccupied with, even as secular America has simultaneously seized Halloween for its own. Which is, again, a crying shame, because both movements have been what squeezed Halloween dry of its spookiness. You can’t have spooky Halloween if you don’t confront fear and death, and confronting fear and death also necessarily means existential examination… and religion.
So if you’re looking for some spookiness tonight, here you go.
Halloween has its most direct origins with the Celtic festival of Samhain, which was one of the four great festivals of the year marking the turn of the world from autumn to winter as well as the cosmic shift of the living world toward the under/otherworld, allowing spirits and fairies to mix for just one day with the human and living folk on our plane of existence. In order to disguise themselves from malevolent spirits or fairies, people wore guises to blend in with the spirits, and leave them food outside their homes in the hopes that they would would take the offering and move on.
Feralia and Pomona
The Roman goddess Pomona (goddess of fruit, often conflated with Demeter, goddess of the harvest) had her own festival a few days after the larger festival of Feralia, which was essentially Roman Halloween, involving a period of state mourning, the honoring and return of ancestor spirits, and divination and fortune-telling. Given the closeness of both celebrations, Pomona lent her fruit to Samhain when the Romans conquered Celtic lands. The early northeastern Americans made much of fruit and fortune-telling, especially the women, who would play all sorts of fruit-laden fortune telling games to tell when and to whom they would be married. Its only still-extant tradition is bobbing for apples.
In England, people would bake “soul cakes” to give to beggars who would come to their doors asking for them over Allhallowtide. In exchange, the beggars would promise to pray for a dead soul in the family who gave him the cake.
Jack of the Lantern
Jack was a clever boy who believed he’d outsmarted God and the devil. He lived a fairly debauched life, knew he wasn’t getting into heaven, and struck a deal with the devil that he wouldn’t go to hell. So when he died, neither the Good Place or the Bad Place would have him, he got a ember to light the netherworld he was stuck in for eternity, and he carved out a turnip and put it inside to light his way. No surprise that jack o’lanterns were often said to represent souls in purgatory. The Irish brought this over to America, where they began using native pumpkins instead of turnips and small gourds.