Thursday, October 27, 2011

On Halloween and History

My relationship with Halloween has evolved over time. As a child subject to an entire menu of scary dreams that tended to repeat themselves (I was known for waking up screaming), I wasn't much for thinking that being frightened had a thing to do with having fun. In fact, I distinctly remember the very last time I attempted to walk through what was called a "fun house." My poor brother had to reverse our way and find our way back OUT when I refused to take a nother step past that hand sticking up out of the grave. I knew it was pretend. I didn't care. I wanted OUT. That was my very last voluntary experience with "fright night."
As a young parent, I was confused. I didn't want my Christian faith to be a list of "what we don't do because we are Christians," but I also didn't want to be involved in "the other side" of the spiritual realm I very firmly believe exists. My children dressed up as cowboys and princesses and we "trick-or-treated" on our very safe and boring block where no one put out lighted skulls or set up speakers so they could broadcast shrieks and moans into the night air.
As a historian, as I ponder the connection between history and Halloween ... I think more about mourning and funeral customs, which I find fascinating and not in the least macabre. So my next few blogs are going to be about the history of mourning customs, funerary art, and memorial practices in America. I only intended to do ONE blog post ... but then I started gathering up the things I reference when someone dies in one of my novels (and someone always dies) ... and realized readers might find some of this stuff interesting. And just so you know ... the doorknocker I photographed above in Florence, Italy, is about as scary as I intend to get.
I've always found cemeteries to be fascinating places, and the symbolism and artistry evident in many of the older graveyards in America seem to me to be "stories in stone," as Douglas Keister said in his book by that name (subtitle: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography). While I grew up visiting old cemeteries (we invariably stopped at old cemeteries on vacation), my first visit to Colonial Williamsburg's Bruton Parish churchyard as an adult captivated me. I'd never seen such ancient stones, never seen entire stories carved into memorials, and never been surrounded by so "death heads" (I learned that term later). Apparently the Puritans were big on this symbolism. It's interesting to live in an age where our own rituals involve removing the reality of death as much as possible and be confronted with a graveyard where death heads meet the eye every which way you turn. I don't find it bone chilling ... just interesting.


  1. I look forward to these posts. Historical markers and old, rural cemeteries were must-sees for my Mom when we were on facation. The most recent cemetery stop was on a hillside outside Ashby, Nebraska.
    PS: We handled Halloween much the same as you. I share your aversion to being scared.
    Jan in Nebraska

  2. My parent's were cemetary visitors, often for the history of the area. My Dad, initially, was not going to be buried, but has since changed his mind citing, "The cemetery is where people can find out about ancestors and if I'm not there who will know I ever was?" With this new mind set he already has the headstone with an etched photo of him and my mother. Not only will they know he was, but they'll know what he looked like.

  3. I wonder if there is a club for cemetery trekkers :-). Nice to know I'm not alone!

    Sally, I appreciate your Dad's mindset, because he's thinking of what's best for those still on earth after he departs. To me, that's what mourning customs are about ... the living. Which is, I suppose, why I don't find these topics "creepy."

    My opinion of Halloween is mosphing ... last night I trekked along after a darling 3-year-old fairy princess ... at an event called "Boo at the Zoo." I was dressed as GRANDMA ... and it was fun!

  4. Um....moRphing. Not moSphing. Sigh.

  5. *vacation, not facation
    Sorry - should have reread my post better yesterday, but as an empty nester, I'm now the hired hand again. My husband was waiting on me to get to the barn so we could saddle up. It was weaning day yesterday. Sorry for the typo, but glad I'm not the only one who makes them. :) Jan in Nebraska

  6. Hi!

    I wanted to let you know how much appreciate your blog and your willingness to share your experience & knowledge with all of us on the writing journey.

    That said, as a way to say "Thank you", I have chosen your blog for the Liebster Blog Award. To find out more, go to my blog at

    Blessings to you!!
    Rhonda (Ritty) :-)

  7. Blessings upon you! Thanks for your kind words.

  8. Hope the weanlings are settling in by now, Jan ... and believe it or not my brain read "vacation" and didn't even notice the "f" ... so not worries, but thanks for checking back in :-).