Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Rite of Passage in Trick-or-Treating

When I think of Halloween, my mind drifts to cups of mulled cider, the scent of fresh apples, bright orange jack o’ lanterns, crisp leaves underfoot and smoky breath in the pre-winter air. The Halloweens of my childhood pull up memories of monster movies and spider webs, candy, bobbing for apples, spooky houses and things unknown. And trick-or-treating.
Once a year we had permission and were encouraged to dress in costumes and travel door-to-door collecting candy in our pillowcases. Looking back, I understand that Halloween was a chance for the insecure girl-I-was to wear another skin, to pull in the energy of someone-I-might-be. Our parents would ask me, my brother and sister, “What do you want to be for Halloween?” and the universe would open before me. When I didn’t have an idea for a costume I would raid my parents’ closet and come out some version of hobo, hippie or gypsy. Halloween, dipping us into darkness, was ripe with possibility for those of us who were living.

Halloween has its origins in the Celtic festival of Samhain, pronounced sow-en, eventually coming to America with immigrants in the 18th and 19th centuries. Children went out into the night carrying lanterns lit with candles, called samhnag. They made them from turnips, carved with frightening faces to scare away the spirits wandering the night. Children went home to home, guised in supernatural costumes, where they were given offerings of food or coins. The gifts were meant to help the children ward off any spirits wishing them harm Samhain, the night when the dead walk again.
Some later customs refer to it as Souling, where children would offer prayers for the dead in return for a small cake. At houses where they were refused, they would batter the door with the butt ends of turnips. One of the earliest records of guising for Halloween comes from 1895 Scotland. The earliest reference to it in North America was from a newspaper in Ontario in 1911, reporting that children would go guising between 6 and 7 on Halloween, spilling songs and rhymes and being rewarded for them with candies and nuts. Trick or Treating as we know it in America, didn’t begin until the 1950s.

Our parents carried us door-to-door when we were children and later, when we could walk on our own, they would coax and encourage us to go up and ring the doorbell while they waited for us on the sidewalk after whispering a quick reminder of what we were supposed to say. The walk to the porch felt long to my short legs. The temperature itself seemed to drop between the familiar figure of my parent and the heat behind the unfamiliar door opening before me. After a hearty “Trick or treat!” and a piece of candy dropped in our pillowcase we would run back to our parent, back to safe, and on to the next home.
The first year that we went out trick-or-treating without chaperone- our own little gang of tricksters- was an early, and personal, rite of passage. Mom stayed home to mind the door and was busy making sheets of homemade pepperoni pizza so it would be hot and waiting when we came in out of the cold. We walked the neighborhood and then the same route we walked every morning to elementary school. Up one side of the street and home the other. It was familiar and known, but in the cloak of darkness it felt foreign. Landmarks stood in shadow and we needed new eyes to find our way.
We were being trusted to watch out for each other, to stay safe, to cross streets wisely and not to stray beyond the streets we knew, or the ones we were told we could travel. As children we didn’t realize how far the web of grown ups-who-knew-each-other spun and we were not hip to the fact that we were never in any true danger.  But that unknown is an essential element to the rites of passage that test our mettle and help us grow. The cold leaves crunched underfoot as we ran from porch light to porch light, pillow cases filling fast with candies my brother and sister and I would later sort through and trade (always setting aside some tootsie rolls for my dad).
There was one house, always decorated fantastically in creepy themes for the trick-or-treaters. Approaching it on our own, however, the house was barren, the only decoration a scarecrow flopped onto the porch with a bowl of candy in its lap. A lot of houses that closed for the night would put the candy bowl out on the porch with a note. As we closed upon the porch, I felt a strange feeling in my belly and I stopped. That’s a person, I thought. I knew that when we got up there, the scarecrow was going to grab us.
We stood still, watching the scarecrow and debating whether or not it could be a real person. We dared someone to see what kind of candy was in the bowl so we could gauge whether or not it was worth it. The scarecrow didn’t move the entire time and was sitting at a strange angle. We approached in a group and as I reached into the bowl… yes, the scarecrow moved and grabbed my hand as we screamed and ran halfway back down the sidewalk. A familiar voice laughed, assuring us it was our neighbor. We stood our ground and made him show his face before we went back for the candy we had earned.
There was a thrill in being able to be brave without the need for a parent. On our own we had evaluated the threat, calculated a plan and supported each other in carrying it out, calling on the energies of our Other skins to aid us. On Halloween we stood in the shadow of no one. It was always light when we started our adventure and in the joy of running from porch to porch we would lose the subtle slip into darkness until we were cold and tired and our bags were heavy with loot. Often, home seemed far away. We would make our way to share stories with our parents of what we had seen on our travels.
The next morning I was aware on the walk to school that the same-old route I had been taking every morning was different. It was bigger. The houses weren’t just landmarks anymore. They were also skins of homes with families and faces inside of them, containing other children who thought the world was no bigger than the size of their house. On that morning I understood the world was bigger than my house, my block, my route to school. There was more of it than I could comprehend.

As a child, on Halloween night I walked with demons and devils, witches, ghosts and ghouls borrowing human skin (and superheroes and princesses). I dared to enter dark places and returned from them unharmed. In the turning of the world, I learned I could enter the darkness and return. Maybe not unscathed, but I could return and know the healing would come. Each year now, as I drop candy into the bags and baskets of little cows, superheroes, witches and pirates, I hope they will remember their fearlessness on this night. I hope they will remember how they learned to move from jack o’ lantern light to jack o’ lantern light as a means to get through the darkness.

Relevant Posts:
Setting a Place for the Dead (posted October 27, 2010)

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