Friday, October 25, 2002
Restoring the reputation of a happy Halloween
Last year, the fun of Halloween seemed a bit frivolous in the wake of the tragedy of September 11. Celebrations were muted, even half-hearted, and more or less concentrated on the very young. Halloween has long been a controversial holiday because of its associations with the dark, scary undersides of our nature, but at the same time it's worth remembering that Carlisle has a long history of Halloween activity, with emphasis on celebration and good spirits.
Almost since its inception in 1950, Carlisle children have been Trick-or-Treating for Unicef, supporting the program that has raised over $188 million to help the world's children. Most of the Unicef trick-or-treaters find that they are rewarded not only with the satisfaction of collecting money in the familiar orange boxes, but also with the traditional candy, as Carlisleans commemorate the holiday and the excitement as well as supporting a fine cause.
Traditional trick-or-treating used to be a neighborhood activity. Sometimes one parent would start the kids off with a party and then they would all go out as a group to ring their neighbors' doorbells. With the increase in traffic, concern with safety, and the spread of housing around town, trick-or-treating has become less popular and more difficult. Today, Carlisleans are asked to donate candy at Daisy's to help those families around the town center who are inundated with most of the town's costumed goblins. The center has become a gathering place, whereas outlying districts have fewer and fewer ringing doorbells.
The custom of gathering in Carlisle Center goes back to a woman named Jo Romaniello, who lived in the Center on Bedford Road. She really enjoyed the holiday, and every year she decorated her porch and dressed as a witch to greet and entertain the trick-or-treaters. In 1998, she planned a town Halloween celebration with Great Brook Farm State Park Superintendent Ray Faucher, to be held at Great Brook Farm's Hart Barn on Halloween night from 5:30-8:30. Teenagers and adults from all over town volunteered their assistance, and the result was a gala celebration, including hayrides and "scary" walks, face painting, storytelling, music, and refreshments. Romaniello dubbed it "The Haunt," and that year, it served well over 600 parents and kindergarten-through-fourth-grade children. Response was joyful and overwhelming, and Romaniello hoped to make The Haunt an annual event. Unfortunately, she moved away from Carlisle and no one has since picked up the reins. Bringing Carlisle families together for this kind of fun certainly seems a good idea. Any takers?
All of us are concerned about the safety issues that surround children dashing along the streets after dark. As far back as 1984, Carlisle Police Officer Kevin Antonelli published a poem in the Mosquito entitled, "For Little Ghosts and Goblins," advising kids and parents on how to have a safe and happy holiday. Each year, the Carlisle Police and Carlisle School advise families on the best ways to costume, light, and walk through the trick-or-treat ritual.
Since our streets are dark and sidewalks are few and far between, many Carlisle folk have found other ways to celebrate. Spirited Halloween poltergeists have dressed the center statue as a witch or a ghost, or draped her with crepe paper, homemade bats, and pumpkins. In 1981, the youth group at the First Religious Society sponsored a party for kids in grades K-5. In 1983, Gleason Public Library initiated the Great Pumpkin Spectacle (to be held this year on October 29), now a Carlisle tradition, complete with a procession and pumpkin lighting. Each year the Carlisle Parents Connection holds a costume party and pumpkin festival for 2- to 5-year-olds during the day on Halloween weekend (October 26 this year).
Mosquito reporters have taken the opportunity to put everybody in the spirit with features like the one on vampires (Nancy Garden, 1983) and photographs of the old burying ground and decorations around town. Penny Zezima's articles on haunted buildings, "things that go bump in the night," are sprinkled through the Mosquito archives. In 1995, she reported on one particularly Carlislean legend, the disembodied voices heard at the old Highland School at the top of School Street. These noises are attributed to "Charlie," the ghost of a long-deceased custodian said to haunt the building to this day.
Trying to change the date
Carlisleans have contributed letters and articles to the paper about their own special Halloween memories and traditions. Most people remember Halloween with great nostalgia; they wrote about the fun of parties and of trick-or-treating, gathering enough delicious homemade, unwrapped candy "to last almost to New Year," and, in other parts of the world, feasting on traditional dishes to celebrate the day (roast lamb in Nova Scotia). In 1995, there was even a letters-to-the-editor debate about the date on which the holiday was celebrated, because it was changed from October 31 to October 29. One well-meaning citizen asked the selectmen to change the date to the 29th, a Sunday, to give parents the option of taking their children on the trick-or-treat route in daylight and without the danger of commuter traffic. The selectmen agreed, offering the town the "option" of choosing either the 29th or the 31st to celebrate. The "option" created much confusion and released a storm of letters to the Mosquito protesting the date change. It was proposed too late, two dates were unacceptable, and, in the words of one concerned citizen, "Halloween [would] be more of a trick ... than a treat" that year.
In 1999, the charming Halloween Phantom began delivering treats mysteriously and a new tradition began — if you received a Phantom treat, you put a sign on your door to indicate that you had been visited by the Phantom, and then you became a Halloween phantom yourself. You had to deliver treats secretly to three of your friends, and so the treats spread all over town.
Some of these creative and innovative customs harken back to the original Halloween celebrations among pagans in western Europe and especially among the Celts. Before Halloween became associated with fright, it was a harvest holiday known as Samhain (pronounced "sow-en") that paid tribute to nature for her blessings, and to the food and protective spirits that would see people through the long winter to come. It marked the transition from summer to winter, and the beginning of the dark season: a "twilight" time, when those who inhabited both the earth and the "other world" could travel freely between them. Gods and ancestors might come visiting, and were treated with hospitality, including food, drink, and a place to rest. Young people sometimes disguised themselves accordingly and went about requesting this hospitality from whomever they met; if they were refused, they might tear up gardens to symbolically destroy the work and grief of the past year, or play some other less damaging trick on their hosts. Thus, trick-or-treating was bom. To protect symbolically against the coming darkness, cold and privation of winter, and the less benevolent spirits who might also wander about at this time, people carved turnips into nightwatchmen's faces, lighted the "jacks-with-lantems,"
hung them around their houses and gardens, and carried them when they were abroad at night. The actual festival included bonfires, feasts, animal sacrifices associated with the killing and curing of meat to be used in winter, and storytelling. Special foods meant to please the gods were served, and everyone celebrated the bounties of nature.
Fear was actually more associated with winter, which was an especially trying time for people without central heating and supermarkets. The advent of the Christian era added the frightening connotation to October 31, the evening before All Saints' Day, (November 1). Samhain became All Hallows'Eve, or Hallowe'en, when evil spirits would run rampant over the earth in a last frenzy before the dawn when the celebration of all the saints forced them back into their hellish homes.
How about a Halloween party?
What is missing from Carlisle's Halloween holiday? How many of us remember the fun and excitement of our own past Halloweens? Perhaps we need to concentrate our efforts less on the frightening aspects of Halloween — who needs them when, like the Iron Age pagans facing winter, we have more frightening things to face in the real world? — and more on the ancient idea of fellowship, feasting, light, and hospitality. Perhaps we need a few more Halloween-theme parties, costumed or not, that bring us together to celebrate the good things of nature. When was the last time you bobbed for apples?
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito