Wednesday, January 14, 2009

October 2008: Halloween

Sometime in September, the various grocery stores and pharmacies are done with Back to School and stock their seasonal aisles with Halloween candies and decorations. Halloween, in the past twenty years, has really taken off. When I was a youngster, we had one pumpkin. We bought it a week before Halloween and carved it a few days before the hallowed evening. We had almost no decorations. Maybe, we had paper cutouts of witches, jack-o-lanterns, and ghosts taped to the windows. Maybe, we had Glass Wax stenciled silhouettes on our windows… and this really does date me.

Now, more and more folks spend as much time and money decorating their homes for Halloween as they do for Christmas. We have a pile of pumpkins by our mailbox, ghosts and a skeleton hanging from two of the trees in our front yard. Orange lights adorn the boxwoods lining our front walk. Other houses blow our décor scheme away. They have more intricate lighting, several of those huge monstrous real pumpkins, huge blow-up pumpkins and ghouls, mechanical arms that look like corpses trying to crawl out of their graves, and severed bodies on their lawns. Yes, Halloween has gone as commercial as any other holiday.

But, I am totally OK with this. Halloween is a fun and very kid centric holiday. It is not a major religious holiday that has been usurped of all reason by commercialism. It is fun and people take it as such.

A little Halloween history: Halloween is clearly a harvest festival. Wikipedia, that almost definitive source of internet information, confirms that it is a harvest festival of Celtic origins. The festival was called Samhain. Bonfires were lit and animals slaughtered for winter stores. It was the end of one growing season and the beginning of the next. It was sometimes thought to be the Celtic New Year.

There was a belief that at this time of year that “the boundary between the alive and the deceased dissolved, and the dead become dangerous for the living by causing problems such as sickness or damaged crops.” People donned masks or costumes to either please or scare off the spirits that may cause them harm. Hence, the origin of costumes designed to scare.

It makes sense, in these northern climes the world can be an eerie place at this time of year. Everything that was lush and green becomes barren and brown. It is as if nature has died. The wind blows sharper and colder. Winter is in the air.

I have only lived in the Midwest and Northeast parts of the United States. We experience the four seasons not unlike Ireland where the holiday was born. When the harvest is over, and mind you I have never harvested anything beyond raking leaves when I was growing up, the moon is big and full, and the leaves are all off the trees. To me, it has always been the cusp between autumn and winter.

The name, Halloween or All Hallows Eve or All Hallows Evening, came when November 1st was made All Saints Day by Popes Gregory III and Gregory IV (I am totally mystified why such a thing would require the attention of two popes). All Saints Day was previously May 13th. It was moved to November 1st, as often done in the early days of Christianity, to supplant pagan holidays. Oddly, All Saints Day was set on May 13th to replace another pagan holiday.

The great symbol of Halloween is the Jack-o-Lantern. Originally, in Europe, carved out and illuminated turnips and rutabagas were used to assist in scaring off the evil spirits. In the United States, pumpkins took the place of turnips and rutabagas. Pumpkins were in greater supply here and they were larger and hence easier to carve. The carving of pumpkins was a tradition in the United States long before being associated with Halloween in the mid-1800s.

Carved pumpkins are called Jack-o-Lanterns. Lore is that the name came from Stingy Jack a tough minded, hard drinking, and gambling Irish farmer. He played a series of tricks on the devil such as having him climb into a tree and then trapping him there by carving a cross on the tree trunk. The devil cursed Jack, making him wander the land at night by only the light of a candle inside a carved turnip.

Aram’s Holiday: I always enjoyed Halloween as a youngster. It was great fun. But, really it was only Halloween day and perhaps the day or two before. That was when we carved the pumpkin. That was when we settled on the costume. We would wear our costumes to school either on Halloween day or the day before and then again for Trick-or-Treating. That was it and really that was enough. It was a special time of the year growing up.

That all changed with my son Aram. Aram was born in 1981 and from when he was old enough to be able to put videos into the VCR by himself, at the age of two, he loved movies laden with potions, special powers, and seemingly epic battles between the forces of good vs. evil. Sure, he liked Sesame Street, Barney, and Mr. Rogers. But, he really loved Transformers, He-Man, Power Rangers, and the Wizard of Oz.

His favorite movie by far was the Wizard of Oz. When I was growing up, we would watch the Wizard of Oz once a year. It was shown on, if I recall, a January Sunday in the early evening. The entire family would gather around the TV and we would enjoy the annual showing. The first few times I saw it, I never got the full impact of Dorothy waking up in Oz. Out television was black and white. I was impressed when I finally understood the cinematic trick of having all the Kansas scenes in black and white and the magical land of Oz being in color.

With the VCR in our house, I was really surprised by how many times our children would watch movies. Aram must have watched the Wizard of OZ a thousand times over a two or three year period. I do not think I am exaggerating at all. Some days, he would watch it twice. It was by far his favorite movie: wicked witches, flying monkeys, the tin man, the scarecrow, the wizard, all of it fascinated him. I actually wondered if we were warping his mind.

It really was not a problem. He has grown up and is a responsible lawyer in the US Department of Justice. Wait… maybe he is living out these early impressions. He is fighting for good over evil; he is using his magical knowledge and powers of The Law… hmmm.

When we went to Disneyland the first time he was six. His favorite attraction was the Haunted Mansion. When we went in and the octagon reception room began to descend transforming the room, he climbed into my arms and whispered, “Dad, I think coming here was a very bad idea.” He was quiet the entire time but either held my hand or grabbed my arm. When it was over and we were outside again, he said with great glee, “Let’s do it again, Dad!” We did.

This love for things magical, mystical, mysterious, and eerie made Aram a great fan and participant in Halloween. Early on, he would wear whatever costume his mother would prepare for him. Around the age of eight or nine, he would start planning his costumes, plural mind you, around the beginning of October. There would be several Halloween events: school, church, local shopping center parades. We would attend them all. Aram would wear a different costume to each.

He preferred black costumes. He was a witch, Dracula, and a variety of related things. Come Halloween evening, he tended to merge the costumes into wearing a witches hat and a Dracula cape, perhaps carrying a sword, and maybe wearing some kind of molded mask. He was so excited he could not choose just one theme.

When we moved to Connecticut 1990, Judy began hosting a pre-Trick-or-Treat party at our home. We would serve hotdogs, chips, and sodas. All the neighborhood children would come over with their parents. It was a great way to kick-off of the evening. I believe the neighborhood still does this.

Wilton, Connecticut was a great place to Tick-or-Treat. There were no street lights, the houses were far apart being on two acre lots, and it was heavily wooded. There was no ambient light save whatever moonlight and starlight there might be. It was dark, cool, and the wind rustled the leaves on the ground and whistled through the trees all around. It was a delightfully eerie place Trick-or-Treat. It was very Sleepy Hollowish, which by the way was only 37 miles away.
Aram would be so excited so full of pure delight with Halloween that I could not help get swept up by it. It was a joy. When we began the Trick-or-Treating, he would run, skip, and jump from house to house. It was like his feet barely hit the ground. I thought we would trip over roots, rocks, or ditches which were all over.

To this day, we call Halloween Aram’s holiday. We decorated beyond what we might have ever considered simply because of his enthusiasm. He still takes it seriously, when time permits. I have no doubts that when he becomes a father, he will make Halloween fun for his children.
The Halloween House: Our house in Wilton became known as the Halloween house. It was something that I took pride in.

We always decorated the house. It was always good but certainly nothing over the top. We had a scary sound effects tape we would always play that gave a very eerie feel to the place as the trick-or-treaters walked up to the house. These things were the foundation upon which we built the Halloween House reputation.

It began, no surprise here, with Aram. When he was a senior in high school in 1998, he was clearly too old to trick and treat. But as we have established earlier in this letter, he enjoyed the holiday immensely and he wanted to still be part of it. So, he decided to pass out the candy.
Aram decided to add a very Aram like twist to it. He dressed in jeans and wore a bulky sweatshirt. He stuffed the front of his sweatshirt with crumpled newspapers, wore a latex wolf man mask, and sat limply in a chair on the front porch looking as much like a dummy as he could. When trick-or-treaters approached, he would come to life and scare the kids. He was pretty effective at this.

As he was away at college the next year, I decided to follow Aram’s example. I donned the same getup and sat on the porch. I only really scared one person, one of the mothers, and she may have had a few drinks. One of the neighbor kids walked right up to me. I waited to scare him until he reached out to touch me. He did not try to touch me but instead just whispered, “Your son was much scarier last year.”

Well, I took that as a bit of a challenge. I thought about what to do. I wanted to come up with something unique and really scary. Being inherently cheap and not much of a handyman, there was no way I was going to spend money and time building anything elaborate. What to do? What to do?

I was loading my PA system into my car one day to go and play some music. I thought why not put a speaker in the bushes and say something scary and booming. I figured this would make anyone jump with fright. We would still have the decorations and the eerie sound effects playing. It could be pretty cool.

It exceeded my expectations. I placed the speaker in a dark place in the bushes. I ran a wire into the house where I had the amplifier and a microphone set up just inside the front door. I had the volume kicked up with a lot of reverb. As trick-or-treaters and their parents were nearing the speaker on the front walk, I would bellow out, “WHO DARES APPROACH THIS HOUSE!!”

I believe that the technical way of explaining the effectiveness of this scheme is simply that I scared the bejeebers out of them. Children would squeal and parents would jump. Trick-or-treaters that had already experienced the scare would tell others “you have to go to the scary Halloween House.”

One group of youngsters came to the door, laughing and oohing and aahing, “Man that was great.” Another said, “I wasn’t scared at all.” His friend added, “No way, man, you squealed like a baby.”

Younger children were the most fun. They would leave our house and from the street yell back, in defiance, “I’m not afraid of you.” There was one young fellow dressed in full Jedi garb that began swinging his plastic light saber when I scared him.

I did feel bad, however, about the youngest Trick-or-treaters. Many of them would turn tail and run back toward the street or climb right up into their parents’ arms and refuse to come any close to the scary Halloween House. I would switch to a nicer voice and tell them not to worry, not to be afraid, and to come and get their candy. But, no one that ran ever came back. As this was inherently unfair and almost cruel, we came up with a solution. The last year we did this, my wife, Judy, waited at the end of the driveway with candy to give those totally scared youngsters their treats. It worked out well.

I really thought some of the parents of the tots that I totally scared might complain about me traumatizing their little ones. They would have been justified. On the contrary, throught the rest of the year, people would stop their cars when I was getting the mail and tell me how much they all enjoyed being scared out of their shorts.

Our driveway and front walk were relatively long. I would move the location of the speaker. They Trick-or-Treaters would remember the house and being scared. They would know, they would expect it, and still they would be scared. It was a lot of fun.

After moving to Illinois, we take a much more traditional approach. We just give candy to the Trick-or-Treaters. Part of me still wants to scare the pants off of them… maybe next year.

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