Between Pop Rocks and a hard place

I’m not a great fan of holidays because almost none of them celebrate the reason they were created.

The most egregious example is Christmas, which now seems less a celebration of peace on earth goodwill to all, than a manic spending spree and shlock-a-palooza. The commercial hype used to start immediately after Thanksgiving; now it begins after Halloween. Maybe when it kicks off on July Fourth, people will consider it at least a tad tasteless. Then again, maybe not.

There are two exceptions to my Holiday Grinchitude – Winter Carnival and Halloween. I adore them both and for the same reason: They’ve stayed true to their original purpose, which in both cases is to have fun.

There’s no doubt Carnival started for fun, since it’s stated in the official proclamation the mayor reads each year at the coronation. But because its origins are prehistoric, Halloween isn’t such a simple issue.

For one thing, the name Halloween is a recent label, from about the mid-1700s. It refers to All Hallows’ Eve, the night before All Hallows’ Day (later referred to as All Saints’ Day). Hallow means holy (as in The Lord’s Prayer); the “een” part is bit more complicated. It’s actually a shortened from “even,” which was the old English word for “eve.” In turn, “even” was shortened to “e’en,” and from there it was a mere skip to “een.”

But All Hallows’ Eve and Halloween are Christian; the original holiday was called Samhein and was celebrated by the pagan Celts.

Like all pagan practices, Samhein’s origins are lost in the mists of prehistory. But it’s a fact it’s been around a long time: There’s archeological evidence it was being celebrated 4,500 years ago – long before the pyramids were built. Astronomically, it’s the time between fall and winter; according to the Celts it was the time when the border between the physical world and the spirit world was at its thinnest. And this is pretty much how our Halloween fun and funk started.

According to legend, because the spirit world and our world were barely separated, it meant the spirits could return here, to our very own backyards, and whisk us away to to their backyards. A terrifying proposition indeed. So, to thwart the ghostly kidnappers, people dressed in fantastic costumes. This was a two-pronged strategy. One was if we looked scary enough, we could scare the spirits away. The other was if we looked freaky enough, the spirits would think we were one of them and’d leave us alone.

They did all sorts of other stuff too, from building huge bonfires on the hills to carving giant turnips into jack o’lanterns.

So while mollifying/fooling the spirits are the “official” rationales of Halloween, I think there’s another one, namely to have a big party, because you gotta admit it, it sounds like a great last fall blast before you-know-what is upon us. Kinda like homecoming weekends, minus the TBI’s and inebriation.

So much for Halloween’s origins. How did we end up with it? It was, along with Oscar Wilde, John McCormack, and Brendan Behan, one of Ireland’s greatest exports, brought here with the great 19th century Irish exodus. And as a result, by the way, the US and Canada are the only countries outside of Ireland and Scotland – lucky us.

Dybbuks in downtown

Today in My Home Town Halloween is a scripted affair. From 3:30 to 5 p.m., Main Street and Broadway are closed to traffic from the town hall to Bloomingdale Avenue as the streets are a’swarm with little ghosts, ghouls, goblins, princesses, super heroes, anti-heroes, and Lord knows what else. It’s a jam-packed but orderly affair, with the local businesses shelling out a king’s ransom in Gummy Bears, Tootsie Pops, Jolly Ranchers, candy corn, bubble gum eyeballs and all sorts of other Dentist’s Deelites. It has its own charm, for sure, and it’s a perfectly safe venue for the kiddies. But there’s something it’s not – as much fun as the Halloweens of my youth.

In those less-fearful times it was understood that Halloween was a time when kids were allowed, if not encouraged, to go off the rails – maybe the only time. As such, once we were old enough to be allowed out of parents’ sight, we donned our costumes, hefted a goody bag, and once darkness had set in, we tore off in search of plunder galore.

While today it might seem a risky thing to do — letting young kids wander around on Halloween night – it really wasn’t. First, we stayed in our neighborhood, where each house was alight. And second, the streets were full of kids…who were observed by the adults in the houses. So while we thought we were flying solo, we weren’t. Back then, not only did adults mind the kids’ business; they were supposed to. As a result, they didn’t miss much, and woe betide the kid who got caught is some act of rascality or other.

Bittersweet sweets

In my case, when it came to Halloween, mischief was NOT my game. There was no way I’d ever soap a window, toilet paper a tree, or spray shaving cream all the hell over everything and everybody. Uh-uh, not me. It’s not that I was a goody-goody, model child, or any of that rot. Not me. But I was into Halloween for only one reason – the stash. As a maniacal little sugar freak with a major cash flow problem, Halloween was to me what The Kingdom of God is to the faithful. While they might want to live in the Sweet By and By, all I wanted was to live in the Sweet Here and Now.

Remember, in those Glory Days, penny candy was exactly that. Root beer barrels, atomic fireballs, Fleer Double Bubble, licorice sticks, Mary Janes – all them and more could be had for one red cent a piece. Add to that, I had generous neighbors. And add to that the ethos of the times that while candy may not’ve been good for you, it wasn’t all that bad, either. And what you have (or more exactly, what I had) was enough candy to fry my Islets of Langerhans.

But here’s the thing: As much as I loved candy, I was stupid about it: I hoarded it. To my puerile way of thinking, if I rationed out my stash, bit by bit, I’d be on one heavy-duty sugar high till the cows came home, maybe even till next Halloween.

Of course, it never worked that way for one simple reason: By the time my candy larder was half-gone, it was no good. By then, it was all either petrified or putrefied … or both. Then I had no choice but to throw it out, which to me had the same grim overtones as standing in Pine Ridge Cemetery, watching my best friend’s casket headed for The Bosom of Abraham.

And then I’d do what I did with every other mistake I made back then: I’d swear I’d never do it again, Star of David my heart. Then the next Halloween I repeated my stupidity. And the Halloween after that. I was just like those petty criminals who hate getting busted, but are too damned dumb to either avoid detection or start working for a living.

Finally, I didn’t have to make any decision – I outgrew Halloween. Actually, I didn’t want to, but I had no choice. I realized I was too old in other people’s eyes. It’d become unseemly for me to throw together some verkochte costume and go door-to-door schnorring for sugar.

But while I realized this, I had a hard time accepting it. For there I was, stuck in No Boys Land – too old to trick or treat, but too young for The Teen Canteen. And that pretty much stayed the story of my life — too old for some things, too young for others.

Or at least it was the story of my life. Now I’m not too young for anything … and too old for almost everything.