Halloween - A Fun-Filled Fantasy
By Syed Arif Hussaini
Halloween is one hoax I enjoy thoroughly. Regrettably, the reach of this fun-filled legend keeps shrinking as life in this country becomes increasingly informed by rationality. Now it is largely confined to kids, costumes and candy.
Over half a century back, I happened to be in New York on Halloween night and found the Long Island neighborhood bustling with men, women and children masquerading as ghosts, witches, goblins, ghouls and several fairy-tale characters.
The elaborate and glittering costume parties hosted by the rich and famous of the 19 th century at their mansions in New Port (RI), Philadelphia (PA), Hartford (CT) and elsewhere have all gone to the arch of oblivion. Yet, the legend lingers on. Costume parades are still held in East Hollywood, Bay Area, New York and other places. The one in Hollywood is said to attract quarter of a million people!
Life, indeed, becomes quite dreary without myths, legends and folklore. South Asia thrives and pulsates on these. They provide the generally poor people of the region occasions to gather together and celebrate. Festivals of lights (Divali) of colors (Holi) and periodical commemorations (Urse and Yatra) at various shrines furnish color, laughter and fun to the people at large. Despite fast-spreading education and modernism, myths and legends about holy men and places continue.
As for Halloween, its roots are embedded in the ancient solstice celebrations, researchers claim. October 31 marks the time of the year –solstice- when the sun is farthest from the equator. It means the end of summer and the beginning of winter, the beginning of a new year in Celtic lands of Europe where Halloween is said to have originated. Festivals, called Samhain, were held on November 1 to mark the first day of winter and the start of the seasonal cycle, the ancient Celtic New Year.
Since ‘Samhain’ fell around the same time as the Roman celebration of Pomona, goddess of orchards, the two festivals probably intertwined after Romans invaded Celtic lands. With the spread of Christianity, Celtic and Roman celebrations were recast in a Christian mould and a series of church holidays eventually took the place of Samhain
-All Hallows or All Saints Day (Nov. 1) and centuries later All Souls Day (Nov. 2). All Hallows’ Evening became “All Hallowe’en” and then simply Halloween.
During Reformation, Protestants jettisoned these catholic festivals. The English puritans – Irish and Scottish immigrants in particular- brought in the 18 th and 19 th centuries memories of the Celtic traditions to America. Other immigrant groups added their own cultural layers to these traditions. The interesting concoction that we witness now in America is a mix of all these cultural streams. Whatever its origin and the course that it has followed, there is no denying the fact that it is today a fantasy full of fun and frolics without religious undertones.
No wonder, all communities participate in it. And, there is not much commercial exploitation of the legend. The pumpkin farmers and traders, however, get the opportunity to dispose of their surplus product. The spine-tingling and eerie stories associated with Halloween come in handy for some stores to push sales of masks, ghost costumes, and lots and lots of candy. But, it is like a flash in the pan. For, legend has it that at the first light of day, ghosts, goblins, and witches disappear from sight.
The only ghost that thrives even afterwards is the ghostwriter. Imagine the predicament of Presidents, Prime Ministers and other leaders of people without the spoon feedings of the ghostwriters.
The famous Urdu short-story writer, Saadat Hasan Minto, had fallen on bad days after moving to Lahore from Bombay after Independence. His weakness for hard drinks compelled him for a time to be ghostwriter for some with no talent but an intense desire to join the ranks of writers. Mr. Minto used to, it is said, charge a bottle of whisky for each short story. Some people purchased from him enough stories to get them published in book form and thus join the ranks of good writers. Minto died while still in his forties, leaving such aspirants high and dry, like the pumpkin merchant who has to wind up his pumpkin patch the day after Halloween.
The chief villain in many fairy stories was the evil witch or sorcerer. Through her magic she could call up demons or cast a spell. Since people stopped believing in magic, a new villain replaced the witch. This villain was the mad scientist.
Dr. Victor von Frankenstein was one of the early mad scientists. He created monsters. Next came the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson written in 1885. The story had a moral purpose as it makes the point that there is good and evil in everyone, and that good invariably prevails over evil.
H.G. Well’s “Invisible Man” was turned into a marvelous film. His “War of the World” was about invasion of the world by monsters from Mars. A radio play based on this story was so close to reality that many thought that the world was actually under attack. The consequent helter-skelter caused several traffic jams. The play was more effective than the warnings to the inhabitants of New Orleans to vacate to escape Katrina.
When fantasies closely resemble facts and facts are taken to be fantasies, it may be taken as a prescription for trouble. Halloween is now so far removed from reality that no harmful mix-up is possible even for the lunatic fringe. It is therefore a thoroughly enjoyable fantasy. Enjoy it. Happy Halloween.
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