You know those grinches that, on Valentines Day say, “I don’t need a holiday to tell me when to express my feelings for my loved one” or, on Mothers Day say “I don’t need a stupid holiday to tell me when to call my mom?” Well, that’s one reason I like Halloween –because those bias keep their yaps shut for once. After all, it’s unlikely that those negative nancies are going to say, “I don’t need a stupid holiday to tell me when I can dress like Boba Fett and go door-to-door begging for candy from strangers.” Like so many holidays, most of the customs are under threat of disappearance due to the media standardizing, simplifying and corporatizing its observance.
On Halloween, the boundary between the alive and deceased is erased or at least thin. It was observed asSamhain by the Celts and other Euros until 837 AD, when one of the popes decided to move All Souls Dayfrom May 13 (previously chosen to capitalize on another pagan holiday — The Feast of the Lemures — on which day Romans would exorcise their homes of evil spirits) to its current date. Over time it has evolved from a harvest festival, to an opportunity to divine the future (in the 18th century), to an opportunity for children to obtain candy, to its current status as an excuse for drunken adults to dress like media figures or slutty versions of mythological beings.
Jack-o-lanterns and other Halloween trappings
The tradition of carving a jack-o-lantern comes from the tale of Stingy Jack, or Jack the Smith as he was also known. Jack was an Irish drunkard whose reputation for debauchery, scumminess and villainy reached the ears of the disbelieving Devil himself. When the Devil decided to take Jack’s soul, Jack tricked him into transforming himself into a coin to pay for one last ale. Instead, Jack placed the coin in his pocket, next to a rood, and made a deal that the Devil wouldn’t come back for another ten years. When the Devil showed up ten years later, Jack asked to have an apple. The Devil, displaying shocking gullibility, consented and Jack climbed a tree with a crucifix carved on the trunk. This time Jack struck a deal to never be taken to Hell. Upon Jack’s death, he was denied entry into both Heaven and Hell so the Devil gave him a burning ember inside a hollowed out turnip, cursing him to spend eternity wandering around with his strange lantern.
These jack-o-lanterns were formerly yielded by children to frighten off faeries, who aren’t nearly as benevolent as Tinkerbell would have us believe. Of course, making them out of pumpkins instead of turnips made carrying them impossible for any kid beside Richard Sandrak so costumes have to do the trick. It is also customary to light candles and leave some treats so that the home will be spared.
Everyone knows of the prohibitively unhygienic practice of bobbing for apples but another, more disgusting game involves trying to eat a treacle-soaked scone, suspended on a line, without using one’s hands. There’s also the game of Puicini. In it, blindfolded participant places their hands into a saucer to divine their future based on the contents of the dish. Dirt = death, water = emigration, a ring = marriage, a rosary = taking Holy Orders, a coin = wealth, a bean = poverty.
Another form of Halloween divination is young women unleashing slugs on flour-sprinkled saucers or toss the peel of an apple over one’s shoulder. The result is supposed to spell out, in both cases, the first letter of the future spouse’s name. This is pretty much strictly a Hillbilly thing. More well known is the practice of a young woman gazing into a mirror. Either the image of their future husband or a skull signaling death before marriage is supposed to appear.
I don’t care what you’ve heard, it’s just not Halloween without proper Halloween food. Because Halloween has its roots in the Samhain harvest festival, the importance of food (and fertility) is central. Coming as it does around the time of the apple harvest, apples are big on the Halloween menu whether toffee or caramel. Due to rumors peddled by M&M/Mars, Hershey and Nestle, lots of people are scared of razors existing inside of anything that’s not a low-quality, crappy candy product individually packaged and produced by a corporation. It’s all a bunch of crap though. The moral panic reached its height in 1968, when the New Jersey legislature passed a law resulting in mandatory prison time for apple-tampering.
Another customary food is barmbrack, a fruitcake filled with items including a ring (marriage), a pea (no marriage), a stick (unhappy marriage), a piece of cloth (poverty), a coin (wealth) and… razor blades (just kidding… although barmbrack may be the source of the tampered apples myth, no?).
Other popular items include apple tarts and nuts. Unpopular items include Mary Janes, which (at least when I was a kid) have the least trade value on the candy market.
Fire fire fire, fire on my brain!
Sure, candles and jack-o-lanterns provide a little fire… but if you really want to do it right, you need more! Many of Halloween’s customs revolve around fire, using it for divination, symbolism and to drive away evil. One practice requires two large nuts and a bag of peat moss. Place the nuts in the peat and set it on fire. If the nuts move together in the fire, it’s a good sign for you and your loved one. If they move apart, well… you might want to seek couples counseling. In the meantime, dance around the fire and toss embers into the air. Make sure you have a sober adult supervising. When your fire has burned down (or the village’s, if your village has one of those), form the ashes into a circle with a stone representing each person placed inside. If the stones are displaced or broken the next day, well, you’ve got less than a year.
What’s a Halloween party without music? Undead! Anyway, there’s more to Halloween music than the soul-crushing “Monster Mash.” Here’s some tunes to rip onto your Halloween playlist, and I’m not taking the easy way out and listing goth or mere monster-centric tunes like “Thriller,” just Halloween specific jams.
“Every Day is Halloween” Ministry
“Halloween” Siouxise & the Banshees
Geto Boys “Mind’s Playing Tricks on Me”
Monster Parties – Fact or Fiction?
“It’s Halloween” The Shaggs
“Tam Lin” Fairport Convention
“Hallows Eve” History of Terror
“All Hallows Eve” Type O Negative
“All Hallows Eve” Mannaheim Steamroller
“Halloween” Dead Kennedys
“Halloween” Dream Syndicate
“Halloween” King Diamond
“Halloween” Kirsty MacColl
“Halloween” Viggo Mortenssen
“Halloween Theme” John Carpenter
“All Hallows Eve Dream” Fuhrs & Frohling
OK, so maybe you’re not into Halloween parties and you just want to watch a good movie to get you in the holiday spirit. Everyone knows Mad Monster Party, Nightmare Before Christmas, It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown and the Halloween series. What many don’t realize is that there are literally dozens of films concerning, usually, a group of co-eds trying to get some thrills that become real and deadly. Consider one of these:
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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