An American blend of spirits


It’s easy to argue you that Halloween is America’s most popular secular holiday. Most people spend more on Halloween than they do on Labor Day, July 4, Thanksgiving or any other non-religious observance. Just ask Gary Garabedian of Rhode Island Costume in the Warwick Mall.

“As you know, this is the busiest time of the year for me,” said Garabedian on a recent visit. “I’ve got someone out back and we are doing a quick inventory, so if you want to hang around awhile, I’ll be able to talk to you later.”

With that, Garabedian disappeared behind the racks and racks of costumes and left me to loiter around the store, to check out what was “trending” this year. No wonder he’s busy. According to Time magazine, Americans will spend about $8 billion on Halloween and individuals will spend $79.82 on costumes, candy and decorations, according to the National Retail Federation.

With this being a presidential election year, there are plenty of masks of Romney and Obama, but there is also a Michelle Obama mask, indicating her immense popularity, or notoriety. There is a Hillary Clinton mask, but I don’t remember there being a Hillary mask when she was First Lady, before she ran for the presidency herself. (I didn’t see an Anne Romney mask on the rack at Rhode Island Costume but that could change, depending on the outcome in November.)

But, for the most part, political costumes have limited appeal. Popular culture dictates a great deal to the costume market.

“It often depends on what’s in the movies that year,” said Frank Matarese, who has been working for Garabedian for 11 years. “Pirates are always good.”

Comic book heroes are a perennial favorite, with Spider-Man, Batman, Catwoman and Wonder Woman near the top of the list. “Zombies are big with the kids,” said another associate at the store, “And wrestlers.”

An observer from another culture might wonder about the financial success of Halloween in America, but most anthropologists would feel right at home with it. Nearly every civilization has some sort of ritual to calm the restless spirits of the departed. The Night of the Dead in Mexico is one and religions of the Far East incorporate the veneration of departed souls with varying measures of fear and respect.

According to history.com, Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome in honor of all Christian martyrs in 609. Pope Gregory III later expanded the festival to include all saints as well as all martyrs, and moved the observance to Nov. 1 and blended it with older Celtic rites. All Souls Day was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels and devils. The All Saints Day celebration was also called All Hallows’ Day and the night

All Hallows’ Evening, later contracted to Halloween.

In the English-speaking world, Halloween’s roots are in the festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). This day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death. Celts believed that on the night before their new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of Oct. 31 they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. Ceremonies and sacrifices to appease the spirits ensured a better year to come but it was also a celebration of the harvest and a time to rest until the drudgery of farming began again in the spring.

As you could imagine, the Puritan pilgrims of New England had little use for Halloween because it looked like too much fun to be good for you. Halloween was much more common in the southern colonies, where Celtic immigrants brought their customs with them. As the beliefs and customs of different immigrants were assimilated, the American version of Halloween began to emerge. The first celebrations included public events held to celebrate the harvest, share stories of the dead, tell fortunes, dance and sing. Colonial Halloween festivities also featured ghost stories and mischief making of all kinds.

By the middle of the 19th century, Irish and English traditions took hold and Americans began to dress up in costumes and go house-to-house asking for food or money, a practice that eventually became today's “trick-or-treat” tradition. Young women believed that on Halloween they could divine the name or appearance of their future husband by doing tricks with yarn, apple parings or mirrors.

Halloween had evolved into a holiday for the young, but the high numbers of young children during the ’50s baby boom has allowed grown-ups to take some of the fun into adulthood. Trick-or-treating supposedly prevents tricks being played on you by providing the neighborhood children with small treats, but there is no proof that it works. Kids still prank their elders, possibly spurred on by consuming vast amounts of sweets.

But certain Halloween traditions and beliefs that today’s trick-or-treaters are unaware of would be regarded as downright quaint by the digitally engrossed, like knowing who their future husbands would be and reassuring them that they would be married. Who wouldn’t like to return to the 18th century Irish cook who might bury a ring in mashed potatoes on Halloween, to bring love to a lucky guest?

In Scotland, a woman named a hazelnut for each of her suitors and tossed the nuts into the fireplace. The nut that burned to ashes, rather than popping or exploding, represented the girl's future husband. If a woman ate a concoction of walnuts, hazelnuts and nutmeg, she would dream of her future husband. Women tossed apple-peels on the floor to shape their future husbands’ initials or peered at egg yolks floating in a bowl of water or stood in front of mirrors in dark rooms, holding candles and looking over their shoulders for a lover’s face. Other rituals were more competitive, like the first successful apple-bobber would be the first married.

Pam Matson, a teacher at the Rocky Hill School in Potowomut, was in Rhode Island Costume surprised at some of the historic things I told her about Halloween. She’s a big fan of the day because she said the shared activities at the school boost the morale of the kids and gives the teachers a chance to incorporate some knowledge into the affair.

“We usually try to teach them something with our costumes,” she said. “Last year, we dressed up as the ‘Noble Gases’ and we all wore crowns for neon, argon and such. My husband’s a teacher too, and he tries to do the same thing.”

With all due respect to our teachers and the noble gases, show me something in a pirate, or a zombie.


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