“Don’t talk like that,” Linus cries. “The Great Pumpkin will come because I am in the most sincere pumpkin patch.”
“Oh, good grief,” Lucy exclaims.
from: It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown
written and illustrated by Charles M. Schulz
Random House, 1980
It’s almost Halloween.
On our way to Florida a couple of weeks ago, we passed a billboard that informed us Halloween is a 6,000 year old holiday. I doubted that, and made a note to look it up later, when we stopped for the night.
Everything I found confirmed Halloween had probably evolved from the Celtic harvest holiday, Samhain. The Gaelic word is usually translated as Summer’s End. The holiday, celebrated about 2,000 years ago, was a period of mystical intensity, described in myths as a time when the boundary between the physical and the spiritual world became fluid. Spirits, faeries, and elves walked among mortals. People hollowed out gourds, and carried them, lit, throughout the streets and left gifts along the way to appease the spirits.
The word “hallow” (not hollow) means to set apart as holy, or consecrate. To the English, trying to reconcile their beliefs with those of the Celts, November 1, became “Feasts of All Saints and Souls,” and the day before became “All Hallow’s Eve.” Similarities between the old Celtic celebration and the “modern” included honoring the dead with food and using candle-lit gourds, carved to allow the light to escape.
The foods of choice for these early Brits were “soul cakes,” small, pastries baked with expensive ingredients and precious spices. Soul cakes were distributed to beggars who in turn handed them out to wealthier people. The beggars promised to pray for the departed souls of loved ones in exchange for food.
The ancient Aztecs celebrated Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) around this time, too. Delicious food was part of what amounted to a wonderful family reunion with relatives who had passed into the spirit world, a joyful time for people to celebrate the memories of their ancestors. Candle-lit displays honored the ancestors and allowed them to find their families.
When the Spanish arrived in Mexico during the 1500s, they combined elements of Day of the Dead with their own All Souls Day. Dia de los Muertos is still celebrated in many Hispanic communities in Central America and the United States with elaborate displays and delicious food.
It’s not such a great leap from then to now. We still celebrate with food. We still light pumpkins. We still remember the dead.
In 1950s America, when the Great Depression was becoming a foggy memory and WWII was finally over, a new prosperity spilled into growing suburbs. People were looking for ways to meet their neighbors and entertain their children. Pop-corn balls, caramel apples, and seasonal nuts were distributed to kids who joined their neighbors in an evening of fun.
When I was growing up, we made our own costumes. One year I went as Miss Halloween. I had a tin-foil crown and a sash my mom made from some fabric scraps that I wore over my regular school clothes. Store-bought characters like Superheroes and Disney princesses were not even a twinkle in the eyes of entrepreneurs and merchandizers. Ghosts and skeletons were about as scary as anyone dared to be. Blood and gore were not part of the repertoire. Cats, babies, and storybook characters were popular.
Candy companies already had Easter and Christmas. Valentine’s Day was also a big money-making holiday. But how about something in the Fall? Of course, Halloween. Candy is big business.
Today, Americans spend an estimated $2.6 billion on Halloween candy, according to the National Retail Federation. The day, itself, has become the nation’s second-largest commercial holiday with store-bought costumes and decorations figured into the total.
Now, even the littlest kids dress up in really scary and sometimes bloody-looking costumes. Yuck! And I still don’t get the whole idea of asking for candy from strangers. Because who even knows their neighbors anymore?
Of course, I’m not Scrooge. We don’t have very many kids in our neighborhood, but I’ll turn on my light and get a roll of quarters from the bank, just in case.
Maybe Linus had the best idea. Maybe the Great Pumpkin is still looking for the most sincere pumpkin patch, whatever that really means!
-—stay curious! (and celebrate!)