Halloween as Damp Squib

Nov 06,2017
It's actually my favourite holiday, so I write this now in a spirit of dejection at the paltry insignificance of the whole event around here. I worked myself into a right festive mood by watching Misfits videos and admiring my collection of winter squashes all lined up against the veranda wall. Maybe I should have considered raising an actual pumpkin for the event. Then I could have carved a toothy grin into it and set a candle inside it to glow on the porch just like we did in the Old Country.


None of this means anything to anyone. All I do is trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries.


Way back in the early days, when Man was living in caves, painting himself blue, and doing other cool stuff, people kept time only by the cycles of the moon and the seasons. The paths of the moon and sun were never in sync, so the place where months landed seemed to be different every year until everyone switched to the Gregorian Calendar. Still, in those fabulous ancient times, they did manage to mark certain specific changes in the seasons with very important festivals.


The four key points of the year were the two equinoxes and the two solstices. The equinoxes, as the name implies, are the two times of the year when day and night are of equal length: The vernal equinox in spring, and the autumnal equinox in autumn. The solstices, by contrast, are the times of the two extremes. The summer solstice is the longest day, and the winter solstice the longest night. Since night and darkness have been associated with evil and death throughout all symbolic history, the ancients had their superstitious ways of greeting the coming of 'dark tide' and defending themselves against its assaults.


On certain western European islands, the tradition began of using bonfires and fearsome masks to hold the dark spirits at bay. The time to do this was sometime between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, as the nights were growing longer. The Celts called it Samhain, and it helped that the harvest was just about over, reminding everyone how scarce food was going to be throughout the winter. The prospect of winter must have been a truly frightening thing for most people, when we consider by what narrow a margin civilisation has survived.


Legend has it that a prankster named Jack lived in old Ireland, and that he once tricked and trapped the Devil. He made the Devil promise, in exchange for freedom, not to take his soul when he died. Since Jack wasn't good enough to enter Heaven, his soul was doomed to wander the Netherworld for eternity. The Devil tossed him a coal from Hell to provide some light, and Jack, always keeping a turnip in his pocket, carved it out to make the first Jack-o-lantern.


When that tradition went to the Americas, presumably with the first wave of Irish immigrants, the pumpkins there proved bigger and better vessels for candles, compared to the turnips they had been using. (Of course, by that time, the Irish were all Catholic, and they were calling this festival 'All Hallow's Even' because it was the night before the Christian festival of All Souls, but in practise it was still the same Samhain.) Now we always think of a jack-o-lantern as a pumpkin. Except in Japan, where people think a pumpkin and a kabocha are the same thing. (They aren't.)


While the tradition of carving a pumpkin has not caught on here, I did see a few almost-festive Halloween-type decorations like construction-paper jack-o-lanterns and bats strung together on all-too-colourful paper chains.


It was a damp squib. I wanted to see witches and zombies and vampires. My old friends.


I can't see trick-or-treating ever catching on here, but maybe more people could dress up in costume. The only evidence I've seen of anything happening were newspaper pictures of the Halloween parades in Shinjuku (and in Shinjuku, let's face it, Halloween is redundant.)


Perhaps next year I'll try to foist the mood on the countryside by linking a Misfits video. But that would only work if anyone actually read me.

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