There is a basic, fundamental truth which I have known since childhood; Halloween is the greatest of all holidays. It doesn’t matter if you’re a child jonesing for candy, or a randy young adult with a jones of a different sort. It doesn’t matter if you’re an outgoing party animal or an introvert looking forward to a classic Universal Horror movie marathon. It doesn’t matter if you’re a left-leaning, out-and-proud activist looking to unleash your inner freak, or a conservative type romanticizing the rituals of a Norman Rockwell-era America gone by. And it doesn’t matter what your ethnic and religious background is, or how long you’ve been in this country; since it’s not a religious holiday except for a few very dedicated neo-Pagans, there’s nothing to exclude anybody and everybody from taking part. I loved trick-or-treating as a child, and I love scaring trick-or-treaters as an adult; I love costumes and jack o’lanterns; I love good horror and cheesy horror and everything in between. Like most of my fellow countrymen, I love Halloween.
That’s why it’s been rather dismaying to find, this year, that it’s been hard for me to muster up my usual levels of energy and enthusiasm as the 31st has come around again. And it’s not just me – it seems like this has been a comparatively muted Halloween season for everybody. Part of that is surely due to the calendar – is there anything less conducive to festivity than having Our Greatest Holiday fall on a Monday? And in my own case, part of that probably has to do with a change in my living situation – since I’m in a Bronx apartment now, rather than Long Island, I don’t have the space to put up my usual epic decorations, and I’m still not sure how the heck trick-or-treating works here. But more than anything, it’s hard to celebrate the fanciful fake horrors of Halloween when 2016 has hurled such a demented succession of real horrors at all of us. We’re all mourning way too many people to be able to joke about ghosts and goblins. And the greatest anxiety is yet to come – we can’t give ourselves over to wild celebration when the election is still eight days away, and with it the likelihood of further division, chaos, and even violence. There’s a real chance that our democracy itself is next on 2016’s kill list, and it takes the fun out of carving a death’s-head into a squash.
So it is, perhaps, worth remembering just how this holiday got started centuries ago, when my Celtic ancestors were celebrating a festival called Samhain. (Which is pronounced SOW-uhn, by the way – sorry, but Halloween 3: Season of the Witch has been lying to you all these years.) Celebrating the end of the harvest season, and the onset of the cruel winter, Samhain was the start of the Celtic New Year. Its status as the time when the veil between the living and the dead was at its thinnest stemmed from the very real fact that many of our long-ago ancestors would indeed die during the coming winter. Faced with the stark realities of life, the Celts lit some bonfires, prayed for their departed ancestors to ward them against evil, and hunkered down. And inevitably, the seasons would progress, the earth would go around the sun, and spring – and life – would come again.
Essentially, every holiday is a New Year’s holiday. A reminder that however bleak things get, the sun will rise and set, the seasons will progress, and good fortune – or at least the hope of it – will come again. So while 2016 may be too bleak and unsettling for a light-hearted Halloween, perhaps it would be wise to look to the wisdom of our ancestors and light our own bonfires this Samhain, to steel our resolves against the challenges we face, and hope that the new year will indeed be better.
Of course, that ancient Celtic society died off. Crap, now I’m depressed. Good thing I’ve got all this Halloween candy.