So, Halloween has just passed–a time I really enjoy, but which remains somewhat controversial in Australia.
One of the things that annoys me most is the annual whinge on Facebook about how “American” it all is.
It is true that the popularisation of Halloween trick or treating has largely made its way to our Southern shores courtesy of American television and movies. It is patently not true that Americans invented Halloween itself. Nor is it accurate to say that Halloween didn’t exist in Australia until very recently. Trick or treating was not a thing; true. But All Souls’ Day (or All Hallows’ Eve) has always been a Holy Day of Obligation in the Catholic church, as is the following day, All Saints’ Day. Growing up, our priest was quite insistent that we were expected to attend Mass at least three times in that particular week, so it’s not the kind of thing I’d forget.
I also love to point out the Holy Day of Obligation thing to people who think that Halloween is somehow Satanic. It’s a better argument for that particular audience than my all time favourite one, which comes from Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. In that particular strain of pop culture lore, Halloween is actually the least scary day of the year, since the in-story “real” supernatural beings find the human performativity of spookiness so very cliche as to render the day “like, dead, for the undead;” a potential night off for vamps and slayers alike.
Samhain, the pagan version of what would become Halloween, is actually of Celtic origin. Turnips were carved in the shape of a face, and lit from within, to attract Jack, a will’o the wisp now better known as Jack o’ the Lantern for reasons that will soon become apparent; a disembodied soul who roamed looking for a new body each year. He did this on the day when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was thinnest (observed on October 31). Jack got fooled into going into the lanterns rather than humans or their homes. Kids wore disguises to discombobulate him further.
When folks moved to the American colonies, they switched to pumpkins which were more plentiful and a lot easier to carve.
So it ain’t an American idea. And I also wonder why, on this one day of the year, it’s suddenly acceptable to throw around “American” as an insult. “Oh, it’s so American” folks sneer, as they hop in their Ford to do a Maccas run, before settling in to binge-watch Netflix for the evening.
The other Facebook cohort who get under my skin are the people who ask which day they should go trick or treating. (I am, for now, going to ignore the “trickatreat” crowd–yes, people actually spell it like that–and the fact that practically nobody seems to understand that “trick or treat?” is an actual question with a couple of possible answers). Halloween is like Christmas, folks; it is not a moveable feast. If you decide to celebrate on another day because it’s more convenient for your family, you can’t reasonably expect other families to know that you made that call.
All that aside, I love the idea of the thin veil; of our loved ones being close(r) at hand. I find it a loving, comforting concept, rather than a scary one. Maybe we can blame my time in Japan where there was an altar to deceased family members, and we left offerings like mandarins in Summer when families went back to their hometowns to visit. When I explained it to my Australian Mum, she said it sounded kind of like Santa, but with relatives you missed.
And what’s not to love about that?
At this time of year, I am occasionally contacted by people looking at running a “Halloween story” and this year, I heard from Virginie Nussbaum at the Swiss newspaper, Le Temps.
You can find that article here, but it is behind a paywall. I don’t read French, but with the help of Google Translate I could get the gist of it! Here’s the cover image and the title: “The werewolf, this Other who haunts our nightmares.”