Kage Baker loved old calendars, old traditions, old holidays. The more weight of years something had behind it, the better she liked it.
Mind you, anything that happened even once and turned out well was an immediate tradition for her. All it took for something to become what we’ve always done was for it to come off well, once. Whole routes to and from work or the shops became permanent because once we found a perfectly good standing lamp on the curb along that route – it had marble insets in the base and mostly worked and everything …
Hallowe’en was one of her favorites. as I have mentioned before. It’s a favorite with nearly everyone these days (except the recent crop of religious extremists. My apologies if you ARE a religious extremist, but really – you’re an idiot. And you need to find some other blog to read …) Anyway, for the majority of the world these days, Hallowe’en is simply a terrific festival of costumes and sugar, fun in the dark for all ages.
Kage believed, though, that it was the unconscious weight of the holiday’s age that made it so compelling. It predates most of the modern monotheisms; maybe all of them, its original celebrants didn’t keep very good records. But every human culture celebrates something to mark the harvest and the change to the dark half of the year: it’s an emotional necessity. Something has to see you through the black heart of the winter, some feast and flame and festive mania to assure you that someday the Sun will come back …
Hallowe’en has emerged as the modern winner: coloured lights, costumes,candles and gourds, the last fresh fruit and grain and meat; a night when monsters are held safely at bay and children can roam free in the sweet dark. One night a year when you can be briefly convinced that there is nothing crouched in the blackness between the stars or the streetlights, waiting to eat your soul and your Snickers bars.
The Celts, who originated this version as Samhain, lit bonfires on this night. They wore masks, held feasts, and propitiated the dead for all they were worth. The dead were believed to be able to come back on this night, when the borders of the world were thin: the honored and beloved dead, with any luck, who would appreciate a pint of ale and an energetic four-in-hand by firelight. If you were not so lucky in your visitants – well, you could distract the crankier dead with games and riddles, and lines of salt and grain; blind them with lanterns made of turnips, and blazing bonfires; wear masks so they’d think you were dead, too. Give food to whomever asked, on the chance you were successfully bribing a hungry ghost.
Christianity appropriated this festival (which they COULD NOT get rid of, no matter how they tried) as All Hallow’s Eve, the night before the Feast of All Saints. Emphasis on the beneficent dead, there; hoping for the best. For a long time, it was only a children’s holiday – the fate of many traditions, just before they vanish. And Civilization survived, so it must have worked.
But in more modern times and in non-Christian places, it’s now gone back to the generic “Let’s hold back the dark with a party!” version. Adults celebrate with determination and all the trimmings they can summon, including booze and sex and far too much sugar. And kids are still out there playing at being monsters, demanding their due of attention and treats, assuring us all that Life will make it through the coming dark times.
Today is Hallowe’en “een. It’s the Eve of All Hallows’ Eve, the preparation time for tomorrow night’s festival. The enthusiastic are getting their costumes ready, making sure there’s a good store of candy by the front door, setting out the lights and the decorations and the pumpkins to hold tomorrow’s brave candles. We know there is a horde of ghosts and demons out there, we know they will assault us in their grim legions: but we hope, with all our souls and hearts, that we can hold them off and hold out until the light returns. It’s why we prepare so readily to propitiate their surrogates tomorrow night; if we can hold off the waist-high hordes of goblins and ghoulies and witches, then we’ve got a chance of winning against their bigger, bad-ass brothers …
It’s pretty good symbolism. It’s a pretty good hope. It’s a good way to hallow a Holy Day, fighting off the forces of hatred and evil with candy and light and the laughter of children.
A holy Samhain to you all Dear Readers. May the ghosts of your beloved dead stop by for a warm dram and a cold kiss on the cheek, and the season of darkness be full of light for you.