A Kinder, Gentler Halloween


Come sundown, your neighborhood may see some unusual sights. Small ghosts and goblins, a witch or two, mutant turtles and maybe even a purple dinosaur.

Halloween is here, bringing with it a peculiarly American mixture of customs, many with ancient roots. But however well we dress them up, those old customs still touch deep nerves in our psychic history.

Take trick-or-treating, a ritual in which, symbolically at least, tTC children hold sway over adults. It's a way of suspending the rules for a few hours. The children may squeal "trick or treat," but the fun comes precisely in the knowledge that this is not the ordinary way of things, that the world will be turned right side up again by bedtime.

Ironically, all the flirtation with fright and fear underscores the fact that only in a world that is largely safe can parents comfortably allow their children to be so flippant about skeletons, ghosts and other symbols of darkness and death.

Yet even on festive occasions, the world is never entirely safe.

Can costumed children wander the streets, even on Halloween? Can parents trust a neighborhood not to reward young treat-seekers with life-threatening tricks? These are now familiar questions this time of year.

In earlier generations, trick-or-treaters were scarce for a different reason. As sociologist Michael C. Kearl puts it, children were society's "death lepers." The lives of infants and children were too fragile to allow families the emotional luxury of festively thumbing their noses at the symbols of death.

Testing out those boundaries between life and death is one way of coming to terms with life's biggest mysteries, and Halloween has its roots in this ancient human quest. The name itself -- the eve of All Hallows -- has Christian roots, while many of the customs, such as dressing up in ghoulish costumes or bobbing for apples, stem from the Celts, Druids and even the Romans. Trick-or-treating has virtually died out in Britain, at least on Halloween, but lives on here.

In essence, our Halloween is an ancient exercise in marking boundaries, starting with the greatest boundary of all, that between life and death. It comes at the time when the bounty of summer and harvest time yields to the symbolic death that winter represents. Its fanciful customs help mark the boundaries between the magical world that feels so real to children and the more prosaic world of adults.

The Celts, who celebrated November 1 as the first day of winter, devoted the night before to their lord of death. But for the Christian church, November 1 was All Saints Day, known as All Hallows in medieval England.

In Celtic lore, the dead were allowed time on this night to revisit the living, so this became an occasion for rituals in which the living remembered the dead. During some periods of history, young people would dress up as relatives who had died; if the relative had been considered evil, they dressed as animals. They carried lighted turnips, forerunners of today's jack o'lanterns.

A less ghoulish version of these rituals of memory is now thriving in the Southwestern part of the country, where the Hispanic heritage provides a rival for Halloween in observances of the Day of the Dead. The day is known as All Soul's Day (on which the Catholic Church commemorates the souls of all the deceased).

It falls on November 2, the day following All Saints or All Hallows Day. Rather than focusing on goblins and ghosts, the Day of the Dead celebrates the continuation of life through demonstrations of warmth and love for ancestors. Families welcome the spirits of their departed loved ones, creating small altars in their homes with offerings to honor the deceased. The altars are often decorated with sugar concoctions in the shape of skulls. These reminders of mortality are often personalized with the names of children in the family or other people. Many households prepare a "bread of the dead," baked in the shape of skulls, funeral wreaths or bones.

In its more public form, the day is an occasion for families to visit the graves of their dead, and cemeteries often become the site of extended family gatherings for picnics or festive reunions. The purpose is not to scare people, or even to give children a chance to turn the tables on adults. Celebrations of the Day of the Dead are warm, happy occasions. The altars are not considered spooky or scary, but a way to express fond memories or simply to show that the dead are not forgotten.

In time, and as Americans become more conscious of the diversity of their cultural heritage, this kinder, gentler version of Halloween may reinvigorate and reinvent an old staple of American autumns.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun. Her column appears here each Sunday.

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