A Little Halloween History
Love it or hate it, Halloween comes around every year on October 31st. It began with the Celts, about 2,000 years ago. They celebrated their New Year on November 1—a day that marked the end of summer, the harvest, and life; and the beginning of the dark, cold winter and death. The Celts believed that, on the night before the new year, the boundary between the two worlds, life and death, became fuzzy; and the ghosts of the dead came back to cause trouble. To help ward off these evil spirits, Celtic priests, known as Druids, built huge bonfires into which people threw sacrifices—animal (including humans) and vegetable. The next day, the dead and the undead resumed their rightful places and all was well for another year. The Roman Empire conquered the Celtic territory. Under the Roman emperors the celebration morphed into All Souls Day—still with the bonfires and ceremonies. With the spread of Christianity, November 1 became All Saints Day aka All-Hallows. The night before was called All Hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween.
Flash forward several hundred years, Halloween moved across the ocean to become a community-centered holiday with parades, parties, and entertainment focusing on the food of the season. Americans, ever the ones to come up with something new, added the practice of “trick-or-treating”, going house to house asking for food or money. Families soon learned that they could prevent tricks from being played on them by giving neighborhood children small treats. Ergo, the modern Halloween with dressing up, having parties, and giving out the good stuff.
Home Town Halloween
I was never a big fan of Halloween. As a kid growing up in Cairo, Illinois, I hated the idea of wearing costumes, and I wasn’t too fond of candy. I should explain. My dad owned a grocery store and my aunt a confectionary/variety store, so I was inundated with candy and costumes. No surprise then that neither much interested me. When I was old enough to count change, I worked behind the counter in the confectionary and had to sell the candy, which was displayed in bulk in huge glass cases. I scooped out so much candy corn and chocolate covered marshmallows that, to this day, I can’t stand the sight of them. I hated “treats”.When I wasn’t bagging candy, I was selling Halloween costumes and false faces. Costumes lose their charm after you’ve wrapped countless skeleton suits, Cinderella dresses, and Frankenstein faces.
Then there was the trick angle. My dad’s and my aunt’s storefronts were all glass and extended for almost half a block. Kids loved soaping those windows-- top (or as far up as they could reach) to bottom and side to side using huge bars of P and G laundry soap, which was as waxy as you could get. The next day, the “boys” had to clean the windows. We called the guys who worked for my dad boys, which was something of a misnomer, because they were all on the far side of 30; but in small southern towns all guys were either “son” or “boy”, and I couldn’t very well call my dad’s employees “son”. Anyway, they would go out with buckets, mops, and some really strong cleanser to remove the wax, offering up a good many expletives in the process. Halloween for them was a royal pain. To make matters worse, when I contributed in the soaping, which I often did, my dad made me help with the cleanup. I did like the night before Halloween, which we called “corn night”. The kids were given bags of dried corn which we threw on porches and ran off laughing. It sounds pretty lame now, but back then, we thought it was hilarious. I don’t think it’s practiced up here.
Halloween in Old Town
Which brings me to Halloween in Old Town. Mind you, I still don’t particularly like Halloween, but if anyone could make a believer out of me, it’s Christine Reyna and Chuck Demes and Steve Weiss and Lucy Wojtas. These people know how to throw a Halloween party.
Christine and Chuck cordon off the Crilly courtyard, transform the North Park basement into the scariest haunted house you’d ever want to see, inhabit it all with corpses, monsters, creeps, and have us all seeing dead people. Their guest list includes monsters, swat teams, skeletons, princesses, vampires, werewolves, space aliens, and a few that defy description. See for yourselves.
Weissadoon, aka the Haunted House of Steve, rises from the mist on Menomonee Street. Weissadoon is a mysterious house that appears for only one day every hundred years, though for the people of Old Town, the passing of each century seems no longer than one night.
Each year, the lovely Christina waits at the gate. She holds a human skull from which a dismembered hand beckons us inside. A dilemma. To enter, or not to enter? If we hestitate our chance will be lost, for after this night, Weissadoon will go back into the mists of time—or more accurately into the artificial fog machine and Steve’s garage. Well, it is Halloween and we knew all along we were going in. The hesitation was just to provide a little suspense.
Inside, Count Dracula, Witch Lucy, and Innocent Isabel, (a lost child of Marie Antoinette), entice us with magic potions and forbidden foods. We are given pointed sticks with which to burn hot dogs in the bonfire (in lieu of a virgin, there being none available). We drink powerful ales and blood red wine as we mingle with pagan revelers.
We are regaled with spooky tales of Halloween past by the luscious Lucy B (not to be confused with Witch Lucy), and chased around the premises by headless Riley. All pretty scary stuff. And should we succumb to the terrors confronting us, the good Doctor Charley is on hand to revive us.
A spectacular evening, and we are tempted to remain forever—or for the next hundred years, But we cannot. On the stroke of twelve, Steve will clap his hands and Weissadoon will disappear. As I said, it’s almost enough to make me a believer. Almost.
Filed under: Living in Interesting Times