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Amusing Ourselves With Death and Horror

Halloween R US

by NELSON P. VALDÉS and SAUL LANDAU

All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life…

- Karl Marx, the Manifesto of the communist Party

“There’s certainly pent-up demand for having some fun this year and shoppers are planning to spend their hard-earned dollars on items that help them get into the Halloween spirit,”

-US News

Want to be the Gordon Gecko for Halloween sweets?

- LA Weekly

ORIGINS

If you ask Americans, few know the origins of Halloween. For most, it’s a day for kids to have fun. But the Scotch and the Irish celebrated Pre-Christian rituals at the end of the Celtic year (October 31) and the beginning of a new year (Nov. 1) — also the start of winter. October 31 was All Hallows Eve. On that day the Celts celebrated Samhain’s day (the God of the Dead). Those celebrations became rituals to control social behavior. The Lord of Death pursued the evil doers. These wicked people, once dead, would suffer and become one with animals, no longer human. On Halloween the dead returned — seeking new human bodies.

The Christian Romans conquered the unsaved Celts, but the Celts, in turn, conquered the imagination of the Romans. Just as their soldiers clashed, so did their religious beliefs. But, over time, the two traditions penetrated one another just as their men and women did.  By the 9th century our present day November 1 ritual of All Saints Day had become widespread throughout Christendom. It took 200 years for the Catholic Church to make the popular practice into official doctrine.

Celtic belief in witches did not conflict with Christian assumptions and, just as the inquisition burned people to dissipate and cleanse bodies of evil spirits, the Celts and Scots lit bonfires to ward off evil spirits. Fire drove sin away, into a different space.

In the early centuries, poor people, in these popular and semi pagan-religious festivals, begged or went “a-souling” (the practice of exchanging one’s prayers for the dead for food, drink or cloth. Prayer paid off, or on that night the beggar successfully redistributed a little wealth.

In the 19th century the waves of Irish and Scottish migrants brought these traditions to the new world. The Spanish and Portuguese, in their respective empires in Latin America, had their own version of all saints day. But until the 20th century this was not a secular nor massive phenomena.

NATIONAL DIFFERENCES

In Celtic, Scottish and Irish traditions ritual meant a rite of passage practiced by the entire family, and particularly adults. The idea was to have the living recognize the reality of death, and in a way come to terms with it. That tradition has remained alive in less developed countries. In Latin America, for example, All Souls’ Day has become the day when one remembers dead relatives and friends.

In Mexico, indigenous communities have kept alive some of the old traditions. For example, at noon on October 31, the belief remains that the children who have died and those adults who were not baptized, return in spirit to their homes, to visit for 24 hours. During that period families leave gifts, including sugar and toys for the dead children. The non-baptized adults’ souls are offered food and pulque (an alcoholic beverage). For those who have died less than a year before, the family offers those essentials needed to live comfortably in the after-world: salt, water, and of course, seeds. For one continues to work after this life.

On November 1, at noon the non-baptized adults and the children leave their homes and the dead baptized adults then enter their homes. The family takes turns in praying, talking, celebrating their visits. On November 2 at noon these souls are also expected to depart.

These rituals and festivities have a common thread: the absence of the fear of death, although death receives much respect. Death is an accepted part of the human cycle not the termination of all existence. Death for these cultures represents a stage, or new dimension of being. This is why the Mexicans, like other cultures, play with the theme of death. Thus, on El Día de los Muertos, one eats bread in the shape of a skull, or contests are carried out to see who can produce the most unique starkskeleton. Male and female skeletons get married, or play piano, or do many of the things that we do on this level of existence.

Mexican culture has merged the Christian tradition with Aztec mythology. Tzontemoc is the Lord of Death as much as the Druid’s Samhain. But the Lord of Death does not snatch souls and take them to a terrible place. Instead, the dead return, once a year, to visit with friends and loved ones. The Dia de los Fieles Difuntos emerged as both a sad and a happy celebration.

THE AMERICAN WAY

In the United States these Irish, Scottish, and Celtic rituals and their Mexican counterparts turned into a cultural phenomenon that made children the primary actors.

Children, symbols of innocence in 19th century western civilization, wear masks and horror or ghost costumes, to hide their true identity, and transform themselves into monsters who beg for candy – or else, for those who might refuse their solicitations.

By having children wear masks, we teach them role-playing, or hiding their identities and becoming others. This is the only ritual in American society in which children leave their homes, their security and go into the world – like adults, although often with adult supervision.

The Irish and Scottish tradition called for people to go a-souling as a contractual relation. The beggar received food but gave prayers in return. For American children Halloween is the day of extortion – “give me candy or get threatened with a “trick, (like your house will get toilet-papered)” –not a positive incentive, but a street version of the US big stick policy. Treat me the way I demand or I will retaliate. Al Capone’s protection racket converted to religious ritual and spectacle. In some New York neighborhoods in the 1940s and 50s, Halloween also became the day when Catholic boys in packs and encouraged by their priests, physically attacked their Jewish neighbor boys on the street, while accusing them of “killing our Lord.” This American ritual took on different meaning. The old Irish ritual turned anti-Semitic, making Halloween a day of dead for the Jewish kids.

SHOPPING

Halloween also teaches children to acquire, to accumulate, to obtain more than may be humanly possible to consume in a short span of time, not to satisfy an urge for a sweet, but to accumulate as much as possible, and then compare the accumulation, the harvests, with your neighbor. It is a wonderful way of teaching our children to keep up with or stay ahead of the Joneses.

Halloween has become a sort of “potlatch” whereby with social approval children from poor neighborhoods can once a year obtain some commodities from richer neighborhoods. It would be inconceivable, however, for kids from the affluent neighborhoods to go “trick or treating” in poorer ones.

For American kids, Halloween has no connection with death or ancestors; nor do adults come to terms with death. Rather, it has become a way to teach children to play a role: using their cuteness and costumes to elicit material favors. Unlike Mexican Indian communities, the holiday has no semblance of contractual relationship. Kids, accompanied by parents, buy their costumes, adults buy lots of candy and Halloween becomes another festival of consumption, in which stores stay open late and adults have Halloween parties to compare costumes.

National retail federation expects that total consumer spending on the holiday will surpass $8 billion. The “experts” estimated that 70% of population would “celebrate” Halloween. [1] A religious ritual evolved into a celebration of consumption. Neil Postman would have recognized the phenomena of “amusing ourselves” with death and horror.

This essay was written last year, but never before published. 

Nelson P. Valdes is Professor Emeritus at the University of New Mexico.

Saul Landau’s FIDEL and WILL THE REAL TERRORIST PLEASE STAND UP are available on dvd from cinemalibrestudio.com. His detective novel, Stark in the Bronx, was published by CounterPunch Books. 

Notes. 

[1] http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2012/10/25/halloween-spending-not-spooked-by-shaky-economy