Tuesday, 11 February 2014


2: 2006 - Halloween

Tonight was Halloween.  Down in the little nearby town lots of houses were dressed up for the night - with witches and spiders and webs all over the front lawns.  People put up Halloween flags next to their American flags. 

And there were carved pumpkins everywhere.  Actually, pumpkins seem to have been the source of a little anxiety here – the pumpkin is the state vegetable of New Hampshire – but this year, a farmer from Massachusetts won the pumpkin growing competition.  There have been bitter recriminations in the local press.

Just on sun down, all the kids came out.  Unseasonably warm, but there was still a chill in the air and the leaves from the surrounding forests were piled in huge drifts.  People stopped driving cars around, and it got really quiet, except for the dogs.  Everyone was dressed up.  I saw lots of adults dressed as witches, grim reapers and even one sponge bob (who was having a meal in Sau’s Gourmet Chinese Restaurant – amazing food there, by the way, the pork spare ribs are delicious).

The kids were in full fancy dress - as ghosts or pirates or witches or beauty queens.  They darted from house to house in the town in little groups.  There were kids everywhere  – in fact they took over the town – it simply would not have been safe to drive on the roads.  Some sang songs for sweets, others simply knocked on doors and said trick or treat.  Everyone was polite and the kids have dragged away a huge haul of sweets - some had pillow cases full of candy (Americans call all sweets candy – and sell conveniently packaged small chocolates in bulk for this occasion).

It is a really strange festival - everyone seem to enjoy it – it certainly cost a bit, the estimates range up to $4.96 billion this year, in costumes and chocolate – indeed it is one of most profitable holiday (after Christmas, Mother's Day, Valentines Day, Easter, and Father's Day).  But, leaving aside the commercial interest in the celebration (and the associated health concerns raised by nutritionists, pediatricians and scientists), it is another demonstration of the way adults seem really protective of the kids here.  Another example, for instance, are their school buses.  They do not let kids ride to school on ordinary buses – school buses are all specially built - they look really strange and are bright yellow.  The buses are reinforced, and all the traffic stops near them.

In fact, Halloween did not originate in America (most Americans are blissfully ignorant of this and they bristle with indignation when you point this out – in much the same way when you tell them how an Australian flew the first airplane).  The celebration is still strong on the Western fringe of Europe, and derives from the Irish/Scottish celts - a pagan ceremony if you will.  One of the last pagan ceremonies to survive in modern times, Irish immigrants brought it to America.  But it has been going strong here for 100 years now.  It is a celebration of the last 'bright' day - the end of the warm months - and it is supposed to be a mystical time when the living and the dead can walk together.

In some of the farm areas around here, there are echoes of the older Irish celebration.  For example, many of the farms nearby had two bonfires burning, close to each other.  The people walk in the dark from one bonfire to the other - to represent the change of season, life to death.  In the transition, some say you can access the old burial mounds of the old people.  The younger people simply laugh at this, but the old sit a little more quietly, drinking hard liquor and staring into the fires.

Salem itself is a mass of color, with street parades with the wicca, or at least the wicca for the night, out in force.  Unlike the farm towns, Salem frowns on negative images of witches – there are no hags here, the witches are young and they are dressed in wicked clothing.  Very little clothing.  A couple of days ago a Boston Globe staff writer bemoaned the fact that she could not get her preferred costume for the celebration.  Apparently, the “Garden of Evil Spiritina” - a diaphanous costume with a teeny-weeny skirt and plunging neckline – was all sold out.  Her purpose was a little more serious – in laughing at the present craze for sexy clothing (in the “post-feminist generation, they are liberated to make choices”), she reflected on the strength of local culture that could see a young English teacher wearing the niqab being blissfully unaware that “the mask she dons as an act of self-expression aligns her with the mullahs of repression”.

Elsewhere, a lot of people in American are seriously religious.  Some of them, including a bizarre temporary alliance of conservative christians, jews and muslims, abhore the idea of a pagan celebration - in a couple of states, it is illegal to have the bonfires and street parades have been suppressed.  But most religious leaders simply say that this is a fun celebration that has nothing to do with religion and everyone should simply go out and enjoy themselves.  There are even a couple of carved pumpkins outside some of the local churches (and there are a lot of churches here).

In this I hear an echo of the clash of ideas in England at the height of the witch trials.  At a time when King James was burning lots of witches, he had accumulated a lot of very compelling evidence about the existence of witches, and the different mischiefs and forms they could effect.  He found that the most telling confessions were those made without torture – after the witch had been condemned - at a time when saying anything would have no effect on the death she was about to suffer.  But Reginald Scot, an Oxford graduate who spent a quiet life studying, gardening and learning magic tricks, had put a doubt in the common mind.  Scot said that the witch hunts were absurd and he wrote a book “The Discoverie of Witchcraft” (1584), to tell people just that - and to explain how magic tricks were done.  He also suggested that regular demonstrations of this skill as a public entertainment was in the public interest (a risky course, at the time the state was still hanging people who did not believe in the holy trinity).  King James felt compelled to use all the power of modern technology – the printing press and the post – to disseminate a scholarly book “Deamonology”(1597) to refute Scot – and to demonstrate the social dangers posed by demons and witches.  He sent a copy of this foolish book (thoughtfully republished recently by the religious right), replete with its carefully researched empirically based assessments to all and sundry, no doubt briefly fanning the flames of hatred and fear. 

But in the end, the gentle truth of Scot won through, and his suggestion that we laugh at superstitions with the benefit of real knowledge now permeates western culture.  And that is what the kids did tonight.  They laughed. 

Tomorrow, the churches will celebrate All Saints Day - and in this area that has the feel of a harvest festival - a thanks for the plenty derived from the soil.

It is strange to have daylight saving, a pagan and a christian ceremony all back to back.  But the locals tell me that we are at the end of the bright days and from now on we descend into the dark of winter at this, the pagan division of the year.



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