Halloween Past—St. Helena by Day, Fairy Godmother by Night

When I think of Halloween, this memory comes to mind: cutting across neighborhood lawns (it was faster than running down the sidewalk and up each driveway) and clutching a pillowcase that was at least one-third full of candy. It was dark and the streetlights were on, but I wasn’t scared, because decades ago when I was 9, none of us worried about crime. Besides, I ran in a pack with half a dozen other kids who were also trick or treating.

How I imagined my costume looked . . .

I recall jogging down Charlestown St., several blocks away from my house, because more is more, and I wanted to cover as much territory as possible before 8:00 p.m. when I had to be home. My parents were home, not trailing along on the sidewalk or in the car. I doubt Mom even remembered to take our picture before we left. Halloween was for kids, not parents.

That was an era before tampered-with Tylenol or razor blades in apples. I was old enough to take care of myself in the neighborhood. Running block after block was no trouble because I was 9, and kids ran everywhere, especially if it meant more candy.

My molded plastic fairy godmother/princess mask was pushed up off my face so I could see while I ran. I’d pull it down before I rang each doorbell. I had hiked up my belted white shift so I could run, and my blue cape floated behind me. I had worn this same costume to school—minus the mask and magic wand/scepter—so I could go as St. Helena, as my saint namesake, a Catholic school requirement.

St. Helena

The nuns at my grade school kept us rooted in the religious meaning of Halloween—All Hallowed’s (Saints) Eve. November 1st is All Saints Day, which involved going to Mass and praying for the dead, but it didn’t really resemble the Mexican Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos). Supposedly, that’s a day when the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead thins and spirits of the dead can visit.

However, the usual boundaries of my life were also looser at Halloween. My parents were indulgent. They didn’t fuss about us being out after dark on a school night. They reserved the right to cherry-pick some of the better loot, like Reese’s cups and Butterfingers, but I got to keep and eat the rest of my Halloween candy.

What I remember most is how carefree I was.

Advertisements

Finding Common Ground in the Essence of the Holidays

Thanksgiving in Ohio a few years ago - Table set for 16 - before the  carnage

Thanksgiving in Ohio a few years ago – Table set for 16 – before the dinner carnage

In the class where I assist, explaining the customs surrounding Halloween and Thanksgiving to adult immigrants who are learning English is challenging. Understanding American customs helps immigrants fit in, even if they aren’t likely to celebrate the holidays the exact same way long-time Americans do. However, Halloween and Thanksgiving have evolved so much from their original meanings that often it’s hard to make sense of our current practices.

When I try to explain Halloween, it sounds absurd.

In class, I hear myself say, “Halloween” comes from “All Hallowed’s Eve.” “Hallowed” refers to people who have died—their souls are “hallowed” or “holy,” and Christians believe good souls go to heaven after they die . . . .”

I write the words on the board and think, How can I possibly explain the history? I try this, “Hundreds of years ago the Celts—people who lived in Great Britain and northern Europe—believed that October 31st was the end of one year and November 1st was the start of a new year. At that time of year, dead souls could visit earth. People dressed in costumes to trick the returning spirits, so the spirits or ghosts couldn’t harm them.” Wow. That sounds completely bizarre. Why is this still a holiday?

I say, “Most people don’t really worry about ghosts, but people still enjoy dressing in costumes.” I pause after that semi-lame comment. Moving along, I start to describe how trick or treating works, but falter when explaining the reasons why that custom is acceptable. Give me a treat or else I’ll play a trick on you? On the face of it, that custom sounds like blackmail. Umm, in America, that how we do things??

Given the language barrier, I’m not sure how much the students understand.

cemetary

Photo from traditionscustoms.com

The students from Mexico and Central America see the connection between American Halloween and Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) in which families visit cemeteries with food and mementoes, and they picnic at the gravesites. At best, the students from Africa and Asia look baffled by Halloween and Dia de Muertos, and at worst, they look repelled.

Photo by Subharnab Majumdar - originally posted to Flickr as The Rangoli of Lights

Photo by Subharnab Majumdar – originally posted to Flickr as The Rangoli of Lights (Diwali)

I extend our discussion to describe Diwali (also called Deepavali). It’s a Hindu festival of lights that’s celebrated in late autumn in parts of India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Malaysia, and other countries in the region. People light candles and lamps, create intricate decorations called “rangoli” using colored powder, and families exchange small gifts to celebrate the triumph of light over darkness and knowledge over ignorance.

The Muslim Africans and Buddhists from Asia and begin to nod. They see that in countries across the world, celebrations take place in late autumn when the days grow shorter and darker. They understand that people need light, to gather together, and to celebrate with special food.

When we discuss Thanksgiving, I feel a different sort of disconnect.

The official story of Thanksgiving is that Native Americans selflessly rescued starving Pilgrims by teaching them about North American foods—how to grow corn and squash and how to hunt local game and fish. To show gratitude after the first harvest, the Pilgrims prepared a feast and shared it with the local tribe. That’s the version I learned years ago in school, and it’s still favored today in many public schools.

Fairy tale version of the first Thanksgiving

Fairy tale version of the first Thanksgiving Historical postcard c. 1910 from Plimoth Plantation collection

But, I think, it’s only half of the story. European settlers also introduced smallpox and other diseases to Native Americans, who had no resistance to them. Thousands died. Often the Pilgrims’ interactions with local Indian tribes were disrespectful. Native Americans were seen as “savages” who had no religion of their own. For a long while after the Pilgrims claimed New England for their own, the invading European settlers and Native Americans engaged in raids and massacres. Millions were killed.

How far do I delve into the historical details? After the trouble explaining Halloween customs, I decide to mention, but only summarize, the difficulties between the Native Americans and the Pilgrims. Perhaps it’s wrong to round off history’s sharp edges, but I decide to focus on what connects people of different cultures. I describe the current meaning of Thanksgiving—to be grateful for what you have and to share a good meal (of whatever cuisine) with family and friends. When put in the simplest terms, the students understand the point of Thanksgiving.

By focusing on the essence of these customs—remembering the dead, pushing back darkness, being grateful for a plentiful harvest, and sharing a good meal with family and friends—students who come from Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Russia, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Vietnam find common ground with each other and with Americans.