Thursday, October 23, 2014

Samhain, souling, guising and Shakespeare: A brief history of Halloween

The leaves are turning, the temperature is dropping, most of the summer crops have gone to seed and the days are growing shorter, that can only mean one thing: It is almost time for Samhain (pronounced "sah-win").  What?  You don’t celebrate Samhain?  But it is the end of the harvest season, and time to check your stores for the coming winter, and then on the 31st dress in scary masks and make a large bonfire to attract insects which lure in the bats all to appease the spirits rising from the dead so they don’t bring sickness and ruin next year’s crops.  Well, what do you call that?

Yes, that’s pretty much where it all started.  It was a Gaelic pagan tradition that evolved with the spread of Christianity into All Hallows’ Eve that has its roots in the practice of “souling.”  Indigent villagers would go house-to-house on Hallowmas (November 1) and in return for some form of confectionary, would pray for the family’s deceased members on All Soul’s Day (November 2nd).  The practice of souling or begging, started in medieval Ireland, but spread through Britain and as far eastward as Italy.  It infected Western Culture even to the point of a 1593 Shakespeare reference in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, when Speed accuses his master of "puling (whimpering) like a beggar at Hallowmas."

The tradition that would eventually become “Trick-or-Treating” immigrated to North America with the Irish influx during the great Potato Famine in the mid-19th Century.  But it would take generations before it would take the form we all have come to know.  The first “American” celebrations, dating to the turn of the 20th Century, were small parades of children dressed in costumes giving performances in the early evening.  This was known as guising, and quickly became the genesis of receiving treats from merchants and onlookers as a reward for their songs and dances.  The trick part came much later, with the first known print reference to the term “trick or treat” in 1930.  Soon the practice of costumed children receiving sweets grew (well, except during the sugar shortages of WWII) and spread from North America back across the ocean into its ancestral Europe.   
Adults, not wanting to be left out of the fun, started “costuming” on Halloween at their favorite bars and pubs.  Soon rewards for the “Best,” “Scariest,” and “Most Original” costumes eroded the practice of donning funny makeup and tattered clothes and grew into an American-sized industry of professionally created costumes that range from gruesome, to political lampoon, to the aesthetically sublime, to the raciest of vice and perversion.  And with the combination of intoxicants and the free-spirited absence of inhibitions from the anonymous disguises, Halloween has spawned a Mardi Gras-like atmosphere of debauchery in many of the most popular watering holes.
The Americanized Halloween (or Beggars’ Night as it is referred to in parts of Ohio, Iowa and Massachusetts) is looked on with suspicion by many European countries, and the expressed threat of “tricks” have spurred some police forces in the United Kingdom to threaten to prosecute parents who allow their children to carry out the "trick" element.  In other parts of Europe, the commerce-driven importation of Halloween is seen with even more skepticism, and in light of numerous destructive or illegal "tricks," suspicions about this trick-or-treat game and Halloween in general have been further raised.

It is sometimes fun to pull back the curtains of innocence and peek at the naked roots of our ever evolving culture.  A simple children’s holiday that rose from the superstitions of zombie-like mischief-makers, to medieval pay-for-prayer begging, to guising on parade, and finally the debaucheries of over-imbibed adults, our commercialized version of Halloween now dominates the month of October and marks the onset of the holiday season.

Happy Samhain, everyone! 

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Everything changes and change is everything

     Wow, is it really October already?  Seems like this year has flown by.  The leaves are starting to turn,
people are picking out costumes for Halloween, turkeys are being sacrificed in the Pilgrim tradition, stores are displaying Christmas decorations, the days are way too short already, and I have had the heat on more than once.  Everything changes and change is everything.

      Yes, it is time for your invoice (please, pretty please confirm your receipt -- I had two people not get theirs last month :-(), and this is usually the time I plead with you to visit my blog, The Muse and Views of a Mountain Writer.  Unfortunately, although there is plenty there to read, I haven't posted anything new since the last invoice period.  (You can still peruse the old posts, share a laugh or marvel at my warped insights, leave me a facetious comment, and of course, click on one of the ads so that my advertisers continue to support my hard work.)

      In addition to business, which has been quite good lately, thank you all, my spare time has been spent on certain other of life's distractions.  As most of you know, almost a year ago my wife and I split up.  In the divorce, she took one of our dogs, Betsy, and I kept Sebastian
 with me.  The transition from married life to single life, from two people sharing household responsibilities to me flying solo, and the drastic change in the available budget expenditures kept me occupied for most of this past year.  As things began to stabilize and reach a livable stasis, I started noticing that the other occupant of my house was having issues, too.
      I spent most of this past month searching the local animal shelters for a playmate and companion for my dog Sebastian.  There were several that I thought were good prospects, but Bubba has particular tastes and rejected each one for a variety of reasons.  A little over a week ago I started getting heads-ups from the staff at Sarge's Animal Foundation that Cory, a Feist-mix was soon going to available.

    Sebastian and I met him last Tuesday morning as he was released from the vet who neutered him.  His size, temperament and personality made him a perfect match.  And after some time in a run together, Sebastian grudgingly agreed and Cory found a new home.  
     We didn't bring him home that day, his stitches were bothering him, and I didn't want the added issues of his "licking" to complicate his necessary training and getting him accustomed to his new house and family.  I waited until this past Saturday morning to bring him home.  
     I thought I was prepared for everything, even arranging for my friend Sandra to be here to help keep an eye on things.  Cory climbed the steps to the front deck, met Sebastian (canine style), checked out Sandra, and then surprised us all;  He is completely trained.  It took only one time to show him the door to the run and he understood his responsibilities, he gratefully bowed to Sebastian
 allowing his brother to retain his Alpha Dog status, and immediately let the bipedal humans know he was all about giving and getting love.

     I had to laugh today when I picked up a hat in preparation for the drive down the mountain to check the mail, Cory has already figured out that "hat" means "ride."  In the few short days he's been here, he has become so comfortable that none of us even think of him being a new guy.  Yes, everything changes, and change is everything.  Happy Autumn, everyone, and thanks for everything.