I’ve never been a huge fan of Halloween, which may seem strange given my proclivity towards the macabre as far as my writing goes, but the truth is, even as a kid it wasn’t something I looked forward to with unbridled enthusiasm. The idea of begging people for candy even at a young age just felt a bit unseemly. Maybe as a lad I already had some kind of built in disdain for a holiday that as an adult I find to be lacking in any real meaning.
Halloween in this country has gone the way of other holidays in losing its internal substance and becoming a shell (or skeleton) of what it originally stood for. And, what was that exactly? To completely understand the origin of Halloween one would have to base their doctorate thesis on it and spend the requisite amount of time just sifting through all the pagan and religious theorems laying claim to any little scrap that may seem even vaguely relevant. I mean, is it Celtic or Welsh? How the heck did the Christians get involved? If I tried to explain all of this to my two and four year old, all of our brains would explode. It would be far easier to just explain the commercial spike it gives to the economy every October.
For years I kind of politely refused to recognize the actual day itself. I declined party invites stating prior engagements (there was no way in hell I was going to put on a costume) and before I had my own kids would barely even check in and see what my niece and nephew might be wearing to go out and beg for sugar highs. I was never hostile towards the idea of Halloween – just kind of, meh. Now that I have kids, I still don’t like trick or treating and do it only as a parental responsibility.
The odd thing is: I love the end of October. It’s not the season; I have lived both in New England and Southern California and feel no attachment to any barometric or meteorological events. In fact, I’ve never been able to explain it. I guess it’s just the energy. Despite my feeling that Halloween is a trite wannabe holiday, I think any attention paid to the dead is good attention; even if it is cheapened by plastic outfits of superheroes, politicians and Honey Boo Boo. I have no idea what any of those things have to do with death. Well, maybe I do…
Most of my work comes out of the last two weeks in October. I suppose it could be said that its part of my “process”. Sure, I come up with ideas and write all year, but in these two weeks I may write as many as ten stories in my head and take hundreds of notes. Most of which will make it onto my hard drive eventually.
It wasn’t until 2008 as I careened towards my fortieth year that I realized what it was that drives my creativity during this short period every year. We were living in San Diego close to Old Town, which is sort of the little Mexico of the city when I became aware of Dia de Muertos, the Day of the Dead. This is the Mexican version of Halloween. Without going into too much detail (there’s a lot of it) Dia de Muertos is a celebration of dead family members and friends. You may see it from time to time featured on seasonal Halloween gift packages of Tequila, or special bar events featuring half naked teenagers in skull face and sponsored by the companies who market the stuff. The Day of the Dead begins on October 31st and ends November 2nd. Unlike Halloween, Dia de Muertos is a bank holiday – a real holiday.
October 31st is for the children. Living children invite the souls of the dead to come visit from the afterlife and enjoy treats and offerings that have been carefully prepared and laid out in homes and cemeteries. Although it is the living who eat the offerings after the holiday, it is believed that the souls who visit after their long journey hungrily devour the chow, taking the nutritional value and leaving the living with nothing but a tasty carcass. I think that’s kind of sweet in its own strange seeming way. November 1st is for the adults who perform the same kind of ritual but with a little booze added as incentive for the souls to make their earthly visits. Some people will actually go to cemeteries and spend the night on the graves of their loved ones, or for the less brave, will picnic on the graves the next day.
On that first year in San Diego, I went down to El Campo Santo Cemetery in Old Town on November 1st to get a feel for the whole thing. There is a traditional celebration in Old Town, which ends in a candlelight vigil. I missed all of that on purpose; I just wanted to see what went on in the bone yard during the day. El Campo is a trip. It’s history although fairly brief by historical measure, is rich and interesting with various styles of grave markers and a poorly maintained white plywood guide which lists plenty of graves not marked and in fact underneath the road which runs parallel to the cemetery.
On that day there was one Mexican family who I learned had crossed the border to visit their long departed relative who had been killed for stealing an oar from some swell’s row boat back in the late 1800’s. His was one of the unmarked graves and the family sat on the ground surrounded by their offerings, which consisted of traditional sugar calavera (skull shaped) treats, lighted candles and a bottle of tequila all arranged in an ofreda, or altar. I gave them their space and observed from a corner in the small graveyard – all creepy, voyeur-like, while I took pictures and made some notes.
Watching the reverence these people paid to that little patch of ground made me realize why it was I become creative this time of year. The prompts of Halloween cause me subconsciously to think about the dead, even in its watered down, commercialized way. I’ve never seen a ghost, I’ve never had a psychic experience, but I feel something during these two weeks, some kind of kinship. I think to believe once you’re dead you’re dead, to be very short sighted. Science has proven we have measurable electricity as carbon based beings and we know electricity never dies. Where does it go? Who knows, but I’ll buy that it’s surrounding us and when I walk through a cemetery and ideas pop into my head, I couldn’t really tell you where they come from, but its far more organic than when I force myself to come up with story lines.
This past summer I watched my two-year-old daughter pick up a flower and put it on a gravestone in one of our local cemeteries here in rural Vermont. I’m sure she placed the flower there because she saw all the other stones were adorned in the same manner. But, every time I took her away from that stone, she would wander back and sit on it. So, I tried to confuse her. I brought her across the cemetery, far from that particular marker – keep in mind this was a flat stone, half covered by grass and I would have been hard pressed to find it again, but she went right back to it. I’ll never forget the name on the stone: Lemuel Holt, Jr. who died in 1858. I’ve brought her back twice and both times she made it a point to visit Mr. Holt. On October 2nd of this year, we moved into a new house, pretty far away from that cemetery. I was going through one of the libraries in the house and out of curiosity picked up a book of local census information. The first page I opened to had an entry about Mr. Lemuel Holt, Jr. of Taftsville, Vermont. Explain that. I know I can’t.
I get Dia des Muertes and to me its appeal has to do with it being a holiday for everyone regardless of who you are or what you believe in. It’s an opportunity to keep the dead relevant and honor memories. We do not do enough of that, especially here in the United States. Since 2008, I still go a cemetery no matter where we are on November 1st because I swear there is a different feel, whether its merely in my mind as a predisposed notion or what, I don’t care, it works and I feel like in addition to getting my creative groove on, more importantly I’m honoring all of those who are no longer with us.
Happy Day of the Dead to all.