Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A Lesson on Halloween

When I got to thinking about Halloween today, I realized that the entire thing is ridiculous. We dress up in costumes, yell “trick-or-treat” to get candy (why not just ring the doorbell and ask the kind lady, “May I please have some of your communal candy?”), and carve faces into pumpkins.

Why do we do all of these things? Mr. Brigham did a little bit of research, boys and girls. So get out your notes, and no you may not use the bathroom.

Why? Because I’m just getting ready to start the lecture and you’re only five minutes removed from a 40-minute lunch period.

Well, maybe you need to budget your time a little better at lunch and decide what’s more important—relieving your bladder or finding out what your table-mate thinks about what happened on “Laguna Beach” last night. You can pee your pants for all I care, but you’re going to sit there and listen to what I have to say.

Whew. Now…

Jack-o-Lanterns

Ever wonder why carving a couple holes into a pumpkin and sticking a flickering candle inside suddenly changes that mild-mannered pumpkin into a Jack-o-lantern? The answer is both surprisingly simple, and surprisingly complex.

Let’s start with the simple. “Jack-o-lantern” is a contraction of “Jack of the Lantern,” which is a synonym for will-o-the-wisp. Ta-dah!

So what the hell is a will-o-the-wisp, right? It’s the phenomenon of glowing lights appearing over bogs at twilight, like there’s some spirit out there waving a lantern. The name Jack was tagged on in an early incarnation of the Irish folklore associated with will-o-the-wisps. The story goes that a ne’er-do-well named Drunk Jack made a deal with the Devil where he offered his soul if Satan would pick up his significant bar tab. Jack later tricks the Devil to stay alive, but he eventually has to die and since he’s a bad dude, and he pissed off the Under-Lord, he’s neither welcome in heaven nor in hell. As punishment, he is only given an ember from the fires of hell so that he may wander around bogs at twilight for some reason (wouldn't living in hell be a worse punishment? This is a stupid story.) Drunk Jack keeps this ember in a carved turnip, creating a lantern for his ghostly eternity. (This is where I flick the flashlight on and off rapidly while laughing hysterically.)

So they’ve been carving up vegetables in Ireland and Britain ever since, but we in the U.S.A. didn’t start carving pumpkins until the early 1800s. Actually, it was first done here as part of harvest celebrations, and it didn’t even latch on to Halloween imagery until much later.

Wearing Costumes

Halloween originates from the Pagan Celtic holiday of Samhain, which is the eve of the Catholic Church’s All Saint’s Day. While a lot of popular histories about Halloween claim that masks and costumes always have been a part of the holiday, there are few primary resources to actually prove this.

In truth, costumes didn’t really even become popular in American until the early 1900s, and they weren’t mass produced for children until trick-or-treating got going heavily in the 1930s. I’d love to say that we wear costumes on October 31st because it’s some big tradition dating back hundreds of years, but I can’t. We wear them because it’s fun to dress up once a year. Also, skanky college chicks need an excuse to dress like the slut version of Alice in Wonderland so that they can give away their lady goods in exchange for a few Jell-o shots and lame drunken compliments like, “You’re so beautiful tonight, baby. Let’s go find an empty closet and grope each other.”

The most popular costumes for kids in 2007 included princesses, witches, and Spider-Man, followed closely by Disney characters and (this one I couldn’t believe) Star Wars characters. Why can’t former nerds-turned-parents just let their children pick out their own costumes? What six-year-old is begging their dad to let them dress up like baby Chewbacca when there are Power Rangers and Finding Nemos to choose from?

Trick-or-Treat!

This one, like everything else Halloween related, dates back to a Celtic legend where spirits roaming the earth freely on All Hallow’s Eve (October 31) would come to people’s homes asking for treats. If they did not receive the best treat that homeowner had to offer, a trick would be in order. I’m not sure what sort of tricks spirits used to pull back in the day of yore, but I’m pretty sure it had something to do with lighting a flaming bag of dog poo on front stoops and then ringing the doorbell and hiding in the bushes. Facts are facts, people.

In truth, I don’t see the point of yelling “trick-or-treat” anymore, because almost everybody has candy to give kids anyway. And besides, what sort of “trick” should I expect from a six-year-old dressed up like The Little Mermaid? What’s she going to do if I don’t fork over a Snickers bar? I could maybe see her crying a little bit, but that’s a crappy trick. Put some effort into it. Show some originality.

Nowadays, kids do their trick-or-treating during the light of the early afternoon, but when I was a kid we always ran around at night. Something in the ambience of the evening made the experience so much more enchanting, but all that changed when child rapists started putting razor blades in the apples. What child is going to eat an apple in their Halloween stash anyway? What red-blooded American toddler forgoes Skittles and Laffy Taffy for a piece of real, live fruit? If it were me, by November 8th there would be a nearly-empty candy bowl harboring only a few empty gum wrappers, a couple of uneaten peppermints from the weird old lady around the corner, and a rotted, completely in-tact apple. Parents should’ve used a little more common sense before taking their candy to hospitals to get it x-rayed for needles and blades (I swear that really happened—it’s too ridiculous to make up).

So there you go. You learned some things about Halloween today. Hopefully you’ll go to bed tonight feeling proud of yourself for all the knowledge you’ve accumulated. Then you’ll wake up, burn your skanky Alice in Wonderland getup, and carve yourself a couple of pumpkins.

For my pumpkin this year, I’m carving the symbol “pi” into it. You know, 3.14? Pumpkin Pi! Get it?!

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