I love these pagan rituals...Christmas, Easter and Halloween. Christianity usurped the first two but couldn't quite get church doctrine around the latter. All Saints Day, as such, is pretty much ignored. But the holiday survives stronger than ever in this country and Ireland now that its roots, as the beginning of winter, have been commodified as an occasion for vampire films, costumes and candy.
The origin goes back to the Druids and Celts who noted November first as the start of the dark half of the year. It was regarded as a magical time when the dead walked among the living. The few days between the eve and day following Nov.1st were seen as no-time when the rules of society which allowed tribes to cohere, were temporarily suspended, a short period when chaos prevailed. Hence the mischief, dress-up and cross-dressing.
The veil between the living and the dead was also lifted so those spirits gone were celebrated for their wisdom, bravery or magic. Enter Christianity. Unable to rid the peasants of their tradition the Church built upon it, just as many European cathedrals were built on former pagan sites.
My memory of the holiday is associated with colored chalk. We would mark each other's clothing and engage in benign pranks. Through the years, this evolved or devolved to trick or treating, a mild form of extortion. You gimme this or I'll do that. Of course kids, with their parents behind them, aren't about to do anything except receive compliments on their get-ups. The origin of it all comes from the old notion that evil spirits roamed about and were pacified by a treat left out which also ensured a plentiful crop for the year to come
A more positive interpretation of our practice is that it introduces children to strangers and reaffirms the social fabric of the neighborhood. Fear and mistrust are bridged and adults get to relive their own childhood.
One of my favorite Woody Allen lines is, "My only regret in life is that I'm not someone else." Costume parties allow us, for one night, to shed our skin for another. If it takes Halloween to do it, I'm for it.
Up until recently people lived closer to death. The Mexican, Day of the Dead, is a healthy way to experience the natural inevitability. A small act to relieve our repression and meditate on our own mortality.
Halloween is rooted, literally, in the earth tied to seasonal planting, harvest and a recognition of the solstice. It is a time to recall our connection to the natural cycles of the seasons, a universal observance, one way or another. Pass the pumpkin pie and pumpkin ice cream, only available November 1st.