Raised spirits after fallen leaves

Fall is a hard time for me and always has been.

Of course, “fall” itself is a variable. By its calendar definition it starts on Sept. 21 or 22, but by my definition it starts much later.

I’m fine until foliage, and once we have foliage (especially like our last one) I’m even better. One look anywhere, and all’s right in my world. But once the colors end and the leaves fall, my spirits do as well.

Almost overnight, a grim desolation sets in. The trees are bare, the skies become grey, the temperature drops, and it gets dark earlier. Then, once Daylight Savings hits, I want to hibernate in my man cave till mid-April — at least.

It was the same when I was a kid, only worse, because on top of my other tsouris, I was stuck in school eight hours a day.

But among all the darkness, climatological and ontological, there was one splendid moment of redemption: No matter how bleak things became, there’d always be Halloween.

The lead-up to Halloween was as magical as it was weird. Ghosts, skeletons and gravestones appeared on porches, along with jack o’ lanterns, giant cobwebs, and maybe a corpse or two. Even the school — that bastion of McCarthyesque repression — let slip the dogs of freakiness, as trappings of the otherworld adorned classroom walls.

I think my grade school teachers tolerated rather than participated in the Spirit of Halloween — except for Mrs. Ruth Smith, my second grade teacher. However, she did it unwittingly: While I knew she wasn’t really a witch, she sure looked like one.

Big haps

As a wee poppet, before I was allowed to trick or treat on my own, my mother took us to the big haps at the Petrova school. There were cider and doughnuts in the gym, but the real highlight was Irving Altman’s magic show in the auditorium.

If anyone looked the part of the classic stage magician, it was Mr. Altman. He did everything with theatricality and verve, and he mixed finger-flinging with fun. He also looked the part, with a halo of frizzy white hair and semi-maniacal gleam in his eye.

While most of life has no clear-cut cause and effect, I can trace the exact beginning of my lifelong obsession with magic to those shows. And, decades later, I was lucky enough to have Mr. Altman as my magic mentor.

I can’t remember exactly when I was allowed to trick or treat on my own, but I think I was still in single digits — the same age when I was allowed to go into town alone. But I do remember that once I donned costume and goodybag and headed out into the cold dark night, I was intoxicated with a joy unlike any other.

For one thing, I’d range far and wide — to the very outer reaches of my neighborhood! — in an attempt to satisfy my sugar jones. Which, given my ability to hold my sucrose, was doomed to long-term failure, in spite of its temporary high-wired success. That said, I knew (as I did in no other realm) my efforts would be rewarded … at least as long as my stash held out. After it emptied, I was on my own again, scouring the hills and dales, highways and byways, and nooks and crannies of My Home Town for enough returnable bottles to support my Sugar Daddy addiction.

But as much as I loved candy, scoring all kinds of the stuff wasn’t the whole of my Halloween thrills. What that night was truly about was freedom. Freedom from adult supervision, or even observation. Freedom to stay out late — even on a school night. And of course freedom to stuff my gaping maw with every manner of corn syrup, cane syrup, hydrogenated palm kernel oil, artificial flavorings and colors, and maybe even a couple of peanuts or something else vaguely resembling real food.

I’ve no doubt it was the same for all the other kids, though I never checked: Halloween night, I flew solo, though less like Lucky Lindy than Wrong Way Corrigan, maybe, but solo all the same.

Today’s Halloween is a shadow (but not good enough to be a ghost) of those of my youth. Since we now live in a culture of fear, afraid of everything except the people, places and things we should fear, Halloween has pretty much become as regulated as boot camp. It’s now a daylight event, confined to a specific time and area. While I think that’s great for little kids, who need to be shlepped by adults, it eliminates older kids from the mix. And more’s the pity since they might understand and thus appreciate and enjoy Halloween’s utter weirdness far more than the wee ones. And while some older kids roam about, they’re sadly few and far between.

Gettin’ down with the Druids

We have the Irish to thank for Halloween, bringing it here in the 1840’s with their migrations caused by The Great Hunger. And while many people think it celebrates All Hallows Eve, its origins are pagan and prehistoric.

It was originally the Celtic holiday, Samhain (pronounced “Sow-ween), signifying the end of harvest season and beginning of winter. It was also one of the two times of year when the border between our world and the spirit world was the thinnest, some kind of remembrance celebration of the dead, and perhaps a witches’ holiday too. And because our world and the Otherworld were then closest, it’s thought that was the origin of costumes: For if any spirits were now among us, they’d think that we were fellow spirits, and so would leave us in peace.

At least that’s the reason given in most sources I’ve read. But knowing what I do of the Celts and of pagan cultures in general, I think it was just all part of an excuse to throw one kind hell of a tribe-wide blast.

Over the millenia, paganism has fallen into disfavor and gets bad-rapped a bunch, especially among “highly-civilized” peeps. That said, I’d bet despite their disdain of paganism, even they would have to admit that, if nothing else, the pagans sure knew how to have a good time.

And to that I say, Amen.


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