Back in New York, I was going to write about one of the many exhibitions in town and I will get around to that but I have been side tracked in my neighborhood. In Santa Fe much of the walking I do is from the house to the car and the car to the store, theater or museum.
New York, however, is a walking town. Of course, there are taxis and an excellent mass transit system but since we spend most of our lives within a one mile radius of our residences we tend to walk a lot.
As I have been walking around the neighborhood I have been struck once again with the amazing Halloween decorations that people have put out. There are, of course, those who have spent fortunes. As I was writing this I saw an article in Time Magazine saying that Americans will have spent a record $8 billion this year on Halloween related products, that is an awful lot of candy corn! One finds decorations predominantly on private houses because apartment buildings usually confine themselves to Christmas decorations and that is it. In the latter you find trick or treating which, these days, is confined to tenants who opt in. In one building we lived in Frank Langella (Count Dracula on Broadway and in the movies) went around with his kids. That seemed most appropriate.
I remember, however, when I was rather young I went around in our small apartment building by myself and I did not go trick or treating for candy but rather for money for UNICEF (The United Nations Children’s Fund), which was a school project. I went around predominantly to people I knew and everyone was very nice. In every building, however, there is one really scary apartment or individual and for me that was an old refugee living next door. I was always scared that he would be in the elevator hall when I went out! His English was not very good and heavily accented which added to my fear. I wanted to skip him but my parents encouraged me to ring his doorbell. I guess they knew he wouldn’t eat me but I was not so sure when I rang the bell, he answered and asked me to come in and explain exactly what I was collecting for.
I am sure that I didn’t explain it that well but he walked away and went into the other room probably, I thought, heating the cauldron, but when he came out he put a $5 bill in my plastic container. I could not believe it. At that time it would have bought me 100 candy bars. Wow! I definitely was the winner at school the next day in the UNICEF competition.
But there is more to it than money. People seem to have this urge to create something special and maybe also want to outdo their neighbors. You will see in this Missive images of some of the ingenuity with which these decorations have been put together. Since one sometimes sees the same house with the same ghouls as last year and a few new additions I suspect that like we store Christmas ornaments others, collect Halloween howlers.
If you look up Halloween on the web there is an incredible amount of material and it is not all in agreement. What I believe to be generally agreed to, however, is that Halloween is an ancient pagan holiday started by the Celts before Christ as the Samhain Feast. A feast of the dead that marked the beginning of winter as well as the Celtic new year. The Romans adopted the holiday almost immediately but the Catholic Church did not much like Christians celebrating a pagan holiday so Pope Boniface IV, in the 6th century, changed the holiday to associate it with All Saints day.
The holiday seems to exist in many countries but always adapted to the peculiar circumstances in that country. In Mexico it is called "El Dia de los Muertos" ( The Days of the Dead), a 3 day holiday that starts on the night of October 31 and culminates on November 2nd when they celebrate All Souls Day.
With the spread of the Protestant faith in England Halloween as a holiday fell out of favor. The British were rather resourceful, however, and in it’s stead came up with Guy Fawkes Day celebrating the execution of Guy Fawkes who had plotted with a small group of Catholics to blow up the Houses of Parliament and the Protestant King James with it. On the night of November 5th people light bonfires and burn Fawkes in effigy. Now there is a ghoulish celebration for you!
The Puritans did not approve of celebrating Halloween and it did not exist in this country until the immigration of the Irish and Scottish in the mid 19th century and even then it was kept in their communities. But slowly it did creep into the general culture and by the early 20th century it was celebrated from coast to coast and its popularity seems to be increasing still today.