“This is the Holy Bee coming at you with music and fun, and if you’re not careful, you may learn something before it’s done. Hey, hey, hey…”
Americans claim to love tradition, but rarely have the patience to allow real traditions to develop. We have the media to force-grow traditions for us. Remember, Christmas was once a relatively obscure Catholic holiday, little recognized in the United States until the 1820s or so. What caused it to take off? The media. “The media” back then, of course, was print: books, newspapers, and magazines — and their editors spotted a hot trend in the Washington Irving’s “olde English Christmas” writings. Very soon, Christmas became safe, Protestant…and profitable. Don’t try to say Christmas has only recently “gone commercial.” Just take a look at the advertisements in any mid-19th century magazine’s November or December issue. Christmas in America has always been a way for retailers to clean up, and there’s nothing wrong with that — it’s still a special, awesome, cheerful time of year. You can ascribe that to the religious aspect of the holiday if you need to (I don’t), but we needn’t be ashamed of its media-driven, profiteering origins as a uniquely American holiday. There was no “golden era” to which we can roll back the clock. (Yes, there was a time when the commercialism was less brazen, but that’s a reflection on society as a whole, not just Christmas.) And, please, don’t get me wrong — I love Christmas, and you should, too. My point here is we invent things over a very short period of time, and then pretend those things have always existed.
And that includes today’s special topic: HALLOWEEN. I’ve written about my love of the year-end holidays before, and Halloween season is what gets my three-month-long party started each and every year without fail. It’s still kind of a rebel holiday. Unofficial. No one gets the day off. Religious fundamentalists hate it (which is reason enough to celebrate it.) And on the other end of the spectrum, you “Wiccans” out there aren’t off the hook either. You stand accused of piecing together a bunch of half-understood Celtic mythology, blending it with a bunch of new shit you made up yourselves, and passing it off as “ancient tradition.” The verdict? GUILTY. I’d sentence you to being burned at the stake, but you’d enjoy the attention too much.
Anyway, Halloween celebrates all that is dark, twisted, and macabre. And the end result of a good Halloween night? Stuffing your face with the worst thing for you: Candy-candy-candy, to quote Garfield. Halloween rules.
After reading David J. Skal’s Death Makes A Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween and watching The History Channel’s The Haunted History of Halloween, one thing is clear — even the experts don’t have a fucking clue where the American Halloween really came from. Yes, there’s a handful of old European traditions (which we’ll address presently), but they’re so far removed from our version of Halloween — a modern, 20th century American holiday if there ever was one — the connection is as tenuous as last year’s cobwebs. We may not know for sure how the holiday really sprung up in the US of A, but we sure as hell know how it was popularized: books, movies, cartoons, TV shows. Again, our media does not reflect our traditions. It makes them.
First, some historical roots — three candidates for the official precursor to Halloween:
SAMHAIN (pronounced SAW-wain — meaning “Summer’s End” in Gaelic)
The Celtic New Year’s celebration, in recognition of the final harvest of the year. Because plants and trees were dying or going dormant, and livestock was slaughtered to be salted and preserved for winter dining, the veil between life and death was said to be its thinnest at Samhain, and spirits were said to roam the countryside at will. “Guising,” or the ritual disguising of oneself as a spirit to either placate the real spirits or hide from them, was said to be prevalent around Samhain, but by the 16th century the practice was restricted to the remotest backwoods of Scotland. Although the creating of a samhnang — “spirit candle” — by hollowing out a turnip and carving a face into it was said to date back to antiquity, no references to this particular practice are found before the late 1700s. And if you’ve ever tried to hollow out a turnip — and I have — you’ll be forgiven for doubting if this ever took place, and also be forgiven for thinking the Holy Bee spends way too much time alone with turnips.
ALL SAINTS’ DAY
Early Christians never met an ancient pagan holiday they couldn’t take over and suck the fun out of, and Samain was no exception. November 1 became All Saint’s Day, sometimes known as All Hallows’ Day, and was established by Pope Gregory in the 8th century to commemorate all those who had been hallowed or beatified (i.e., achieved sainthood.) He cannily and deliberately penciled it in to occur during the various pagan harvest festivals, the better to ease non-Christians into accepting a new religion (Christianity as a major movement was still only in its fourth century by then.) All Soul’s Day was November 2, when the good folk in the land of the living prayed for those souls still in limbo or purgatory. It was common for people to go door-to-door asking for a small token in exchange for a prayer for the dearly departed.
All very good and pious, but many still clung to certain pre-Christian beliefs, particularly the belief that spirits were abroad around this time, in particular on the night before All Saint’s Day — October 31. A date first recorded as “All Hallows’ Evening” in 1556, and frequently contracted to “Hallow E’en” from then on.
GUY FAWKES NIGHT
Samhain and its spooky associations were the product of the Celts in Scotland and Ireland, but Guy Fawkes Night is as English as bangers and mash. Back in the 1600s, when the Catholics and Protestants were at each others’ throats, what can only be described as a prototype for 9/11 almost went down. Catholic terrorist Guy Fawkes and several associates came within a whisker of blowing up the English Parliament building with an enormous stockpile of gunpowder. He was captured in the nick of time, tried, and executed. This triumph of justice is celebrated each November 5. The celebrations include fireworks and bonfires, and the custom of going door-to-door for small change. There is usually guising or “mumming” going on here too, but the ritual request in England is not “trick or treat,” but “a penny for the Guy?”
[Remember, though, that door-to-door begging was associated with every medieval feast day.]
We also have England to thank for “jack o’lantern,” a generic term for any wandering spirit that announces its presence with a faint, flickering light. (Its American cousin was the “will o’the wisp.”) It had nothing to do with pumpkins yet.
Concise little history lesson there, if I do say so myself, but what does that have to do with our modern American Halloween? Almost nothing. None of these European holidays even came close surviving the journey to 20th century America intact. For the first century of the existence of the U.S. as an independent nation, there is almost no reference to a “Halloween.” Samhain had been extinct for centuries, All Hallows’ Day was ignored by all but the most devout Catholics, and Guy Fawkes Night still belonged exclusively to the British Commonwealth countries. Where did Halloween as we know it come from? We can only piece together fragments, and watch in wonder as this patchwork moved with a speed only Americans can achieve in forging tradition.
Only the concept of the line between the natural and supernatural being very thin at harvest time survives to connect Samhain to our American Halloween. This new Halloween first gains mention in the very late 1800’s, and it is an oddly feminine holiday. It revolved around private parties, where the mostly-female guests seized upon the occasion’s otherworldly nature by indulging in various divination games — matchmaking and fortune-telling. There was some “masquerading,” but the costumes were rarely if ever scary or grotesque.
“Halloween cards” became all the rage in the early 1900s, and featured witches, ghosts, and other familiar “horror” elements (arched-back black cats seemed a particular favorite), and these began being folded into the Halloween masquerades. Carved pumpkins–a plant native to America, and much, much easier to hollow out than a goddamn turnip–began to appear on Halloween cards and at parties, and were given the seemingly unrelated name “jack o’lantern.” We were a magpie culture, picking up bits and pieces that were interesting to us, and creating an altogether new hybrid. (So our Wiccan friends are actually following a very American way of doing things.)
Another element was added to Halloween in the years after World War I and well into the Great Depression: it became a night of mischief and vandalism. Mailboxes were destroyed. Outhouses tipped over. Front gates knocked off their posts. Windows soaped. There were no costumes or candy involved at this point. It was tantamount to class warfare, as most of the vandals were of the poorer classes, making their attacks on the more well-off.
Here’s where it gets a little fuzzy: The connection between rampant hooliganism and homeowners’ bribery with “treats” to prevent it is a shaky one, and not fully documented or verified. Like many folk traditions, it just sort of appeared. By every verifiable source, the term “trick or treat” entered the lexicon just before or during World War II (1941-45 for the U.S.), but everyone cheerfully pretended it was a generations-old tradition even back when it was newly-minted. “Trick or treat” is an implied threat — give us a treat or we will play a potentially costly “trick” upon your property, but by the time the term was actually in widespread use, the threat was empty, and the phrase lost all connection with the literal truth in less than a generation.
It’s the first few years after World War II that “our” Halloween really came together, with the birth of the baby boomer generation. “Horror” movies as we understand the term were really only about fifteen years old at that point (the landmark films Dracula and Frankenstein were both released by Universal in 1931), and had just recently become an indelible part of American consciousness. War-time shortages and rationing were over, and candy became mass-produced and inexpensive. The middle-class was comfortable, the streets were safe, and a new invention called television was creating a new frame of reference — “pop culture.” By the end of the 1950’s, every October saw a glut of old monster movies, horror-themed cartoons, and other spooky stuff pumped into our living rooms. For example, a very early Disney short, 1929’s The Skeleton Dance, was not produced for nor does it reference the holiday of Halloween, but its imagery has become iconic and synonymous with Halloween due to thousands of October TV showings.
So what’s my earliest memory of Halloween? 1977. That October, the putrid “You Light Up My Life” by Debbie Boone was atop the charts (followed closely by the disco version of the Star Wars theme.) TV viewers were hooked on Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley, and the one-season wonder James At 15 had just premiered. Moviegoers were lining up for Oh God! and Looking For Mr. Goodbar. The Holy Bee was two years old (going on three) and not old enough yet to make the candy-gathering rounds. I was allowed to open the door for the first trick-or-treater, and what did I see? A tiny, uncostumed toddler — clearly younger than me — greedily holding out a grocery bag. How come he got to make the rounds? I sensed he was probably cuter than I was, and perhaps more loved.
I slammed the door in his face.
The memory of that caused me to burn with shame for quite some time afterward. I eventually comforted myself with the thought years later that the door was probably immediately re-opened by someone in authority, little Swee’pea was given his treat, and my door-answering duties curtailed.
The next year, John Carpenter’s Halloween introduced audiences to Michael Myers, music consumers of the 70’s continued their decade-long run of poor taste by putting “Kiss You All Over” by Exile at #1 for the whole month, and 1950’s Milwaukee was still our favorite TV locale. I made my debut as a trick-or-treater, and I did it with flair — I went as a witch, complete with a long, black dress. There must be something in my genetics that causes once-in-a-lifetime cross-dressing, because my son Cameron went out as a witch when he was five. And wearing the exact same dress, which my mother had saved, presumably as evidence for my eventual commitment hearing. (Along with my paper dog-collar and partially gnawed rawhide chew toy dating from roughly the same period, when I thought I was a dog for the better part of a year.) Anyway, I’ll have to ask my dad if he ever donned a dress.
Okay, the cross-dressing thing was twice in a lifetime in my case, but that’s a story I’ve already told. (And I still kind of wish I was a dog.)
So I was a witch in ’78, and the devil in ’79…clearly I was already being seduced by the dark side. Halloween of ’79…Herb Alpert had a fluke hit with “Rise,” and Fonzie was being replaced by Jack Tripper in the hearts of television viewers. My devil mask was of the molded plastic variety that covered the face only. The full-head latex masks were still prohibitively expensive (for now), but at least the interior always smelled overpoweringly of rubber. Not so with the plastic masks. When you wore them several hours a day for months at a time as I did, all the while breathing Nestle Quik breath and Ruffles crumbs into them, the inside begins to get a little funky.
Me (age 4) in my second year of trick-or-treating, and my sister (age 13) in what I hope was her last year of trick-or-treating (she looks capable of driving me around.) Dig that plastic pitchfork and those wee little boots
Around this time is when I first became aware of Halloween specials. The great thing about specials was that they came in pairs. One always ran from 8 to 8:30, followed by another from 8:30 to 9. When I leafed through that week’s new TV Guide and saw the full-page ad for the first Halloween specials of the year, I knew the holiday season had officially arrived. CBS had a lock on the all the best holiday specials, and I could hear the audio of the rotating “CBS Special” logo (reproduced above) from several rooms away. The clattering drum-and-trumpet fanfare would cause me to come flying blindly into the family room like a cat hearing a can opener, no matter what I had been doing before. (I believe I heard it from the shower once in ’83, and ended up watching both specials while wrapped in a towel with shampoo crusting in my hair.)
The original Halloween special was It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, first broadcast in 1966, over eight years before I was born, but repeated every year since. In my mind, the “CBS Special” logo is always followed by the piano melody of Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy” theme, as the titular pair head out of their house on a fall afternoon to select a pumpkin for carving (or, to Linus’ mind, “killing.”) The animation plays out against watercolor backgrounds of autumnal oranges and rosy pinks, there’s a Halloween party and trick-or-treating (referred to as “tricks or treats,” which shows the tradition was still somewhat nebulous as late as the mid-sixties), and a whole midsection involving Snoopy’s “World War I flying ace” that’s just music, sound effects, and pure atmosphere. In the days before DVDs (hell, before VHS, really), to recapture that Halloween feeling whenever I wanted, I had to rely on my trusty Great Pumpkin Read-Along book & cassette set, duly turning the pages when I heard the chime.
The power of tradition is such that this is the last vintage special still shown annually (it’s on for the 45th time this year on October 28 — on ABC, which seems wrong somehow.) As far as the rest of the specials go, the lucky ones still exist on YouTube, the rest only in our memories.
These include the The Fat Albert Halloween Special…
…and Casper’s Halloween Special, The Flintstones Meet Rockula and Frankenstone, and the oddly nihilistic and disturbing Raggedy Ann & Andy: The Pumpkin Who Couldn’t Smile, which I only watched once and avoided ever since. All I remember is those creepy-ass dolls dealing with a manic-depressive pumpkin (its squishy features indicated it was a day or three past its prime) that copiously wept seeds from its hooded eyes. (Can a pumpkin have hooded eyes? I swear this one did.)
My favorite cartoons were always from the Warner Brothers canon, but I remember being disappointed that they never embraced Halloween in the same way Disney, Filmation, and Hanna-Barbera did. Bugs Bunny’s Howl-O-Ween Special was typical of Warner Brothers’ holiday specials: just a collection of four or five thematically similar shorts from their glory days of the 1940s and 50s, force-fit into a narrative by a few minutes of new linking animation.
Oh, and I’d be remiss not to mention The Halloween That Almost Wasn’t, a live-action special from ’79. Children are typically uncritical viewers, but I distinctly remember thinking at age four, “this is really bad.” Judd Hirsch as a disco-dancing Dracula? No, thanks. I also remember the night this was aired was the last night I wet the bed (as a child — there will be tequila-fueled incidents later.) I had been in big-boy pants for almost two years at that point, and then as now, I blamed that fluke accident on the fever dreams inspired by the horridness of this “special.”
And we all know The Last Great Halloween Special was Garfield’s Halloween Adventure, which debuted in 1985. I was almost eleven years old by then, not too old for specials by a long shot (clearly, being almost 36 is not too old for Halloween specials), but the landscape was changing. Animation was aiming toward shorter and shorter attention spans and toy tie-ins, and cable was making more and more inroads into the hegemony that ABC, NBC, and good ol’ CBS had on TV programming.
But we won’t speak of that. We’re here to look back, not forward. More silly costumes and cool stuff on tap for The Holy Bee’s Halloween Special Part II coming soon…