Wednesday, October 16

Halloween 1982, or How the Religious Right Started Celebrating Samhain

When I was little, I was a Pretty Little Dutch Girl, and Cinderella, and Casper the Friendly Ghost. Twice. Halloween was a holiday for children, and I adored it! We would frolic around the neighborhood with one parent while the other stayed home to pass out candy. My candy-holding pumpkin said "BOO" in its jack-o-lantern mouth. All year round, I kept it in my closet, and I would love to bury my face in the opening and snork up the delicious fall candy aroma. 

Halloween was a time for dancing, singing, laughing. For children.

When I was in fourth grade, it happened. The Tylenol Scare. I didn't understand it at the time, but the idea seemed to be that there was a really good chance that people were going to be killing us that Halloween by putting Tylenol in our Halloween candy.

That year we were only allowed to take part in "Harvest Festivals" at our churches, due to fear for the safety of children. What else could our parents do? They wanted us to have a good time. They wanted us to stay alive.

It really wasn't as fun as cavorting around the neighborhood, cheeks pink with cold in the gathering dark.

But the shadow had fallen, the fun was over. From my fourth grade year on, Halloween was "the Devil's holiday." Ministers and church people would rail against the glorification of Satan, the triumph of witchcraft.

Being the dutiful, sanctified girl I always was, I took every word in. And the words that came were horrid!!! I have never heard as many dark and fearsome things anywhere else as I did in church. It was only in church that I learned about a Black Mass, about how to sacrifice animals, about spiritualism and ectoplasm. 

And we certainly wanted to avoid all that.

So we did. Our right-wing evangelical Protestant church held Harvest Festivals year after year. But Halloween was not the province of children anymore, not really. And it was less fun.

When I went to Bible College, we wanted to have at least a little fun on Halloween. Our freshman year, my friends and I dyed our hair with Kool-Aid, and I kissed five or six guys. It was fun! It was so much fun that my friend with the naturally platinum hair had PINK hair until after Christmas. And I mean pank-pink!

Then I met Karen. Karen was a friend I met after college in church. She wanted to have fun on Halloween. She wanted to have fun outside, dressed UP on Halloween!!!! (She actually wanted to have fun on all the holidays, but I only faulted her for having fun with the Devil.) She would get our (now Presbyterian) church friends together, make a mess o' sloppy joes, and have a scavenger hunt all around town.

And I refused to go. For years.

Because, um... animal sacrifice. And Black Masses. Also, maybe the spirits of dead people were scary. Witches. The Devil.

And for years, I would see the pictures of everyone freshly back from cavorting around the neighborhood scavenger hunt, cheeks pink with cold in the gathering dark. 

And Karen was kind to me. She would encourage me to come, listen to all my worrying, and encourage me to come some more. She actually wanted to have fun on all the holidays.

So one October, I sat down at a Barnes and Noble and read an entire book on the history of Halloween. On Samhain. I was fascinated.

It turns out that Samhain is first and foremost a Harvest Festival. It is a Harvest Festival of the Celts, a festival more Irish than St. Patrick's Day. It is also a festival that people do things because they are a little scared of the dead and evil spirits. Like the Devil. People would do things to ward them off, much like the gargoyles on some of the greatest cathedrals in Europe.

Just like in 1982.

So that is what set me free, and from that Halloween on, I always dressed up and went to cavort in the gathering dark. My first year at Karen's party, we were both Rosie the Riveter (but she had a better outfit for it. No matter).

Because, my dears, the moral of the story is this: A holiday is what you make of it.

Karen gave Halloween back its joy. She returned it to the innocence of children.

And we will always be scared. Of the dark. Of the evil. Of the Tylenol.

But in its face, we can dance. And sing. And laugh.

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