Halloween, like many popular celebrations, becomes the object of moralizing based on interpretations of the origins and symbolism of traditional observances.
We have religious fundamentalists refusing to let their children participate, either on the grounds that it is a pagan holiday or because of an alleged connection to Satanism and witchcraft. At the other end of the spectrum, liberals refuse to let their children dress in ethnic or historical garb for fear that somehow trivializes a culture. Safety-conscious parents have banished homemade goodies, and mischief and petty vandalism are less and less tolerated. Sometimes it seems that all that remains of a vigorous community event is another occasion for consuming kitsch manufactured in Asian sweatshops and sold through Wal-Mart.
I could buy a nice plastic jack-o-lantern with a built in LED blinking light for less than the cost of a similar-sized pumpkin with a candle, but this year I’m going with the messy old pumpkin. I’m reliving some childhood nostalgia here, but I’m also conscious that setting out an orange lantern on All Hallows Eve once conveyed a very different message than the availability of free candy to costumed children.
The custom of carving pumpkins with scary faces and setting them out on Halloween is American and dates from the first half of the nineteenth century. It originated with Irish immigrants who were following a custom from their home country, adapting it both to different materials and to a different social milieu. In this country they have always been associated with the mischief making, revelry and role reversal that has traditionally been associated with holidays falling on or near the cross-quarter days – the days midway between solstice and equinox. The significance in a country where the color orange is a symbol of aggressive Protestantism is distinctly different.
All Saints Day (November 1) and All Soul’s Day (November 2) are conspicuously Catholic holidays. Flaunting Protestantism on these days is a way of asserting superiority and expressing contempt toward Catholics. November 4 is the birthday of William of Orange, formerly celebrated by Irish Protestants in Ireland and England as a holiday marked by parades and other public demonstrations. In 1817 there was a major riot in London when Irish Protestants attempted to decorate the statue of William III in St. James Square in a festive and respectful manner and Irish Catholics tried forcibly to prevent them. November 5 is of course Guy Fawkes Day, an occasion for vandalism and rowdy behavior celebrating the triumph of English Protestantism over a dastardly Catholic plot to blow up Parliament. In other words, there is an entire week with multiple traditional excuses for conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in the British Isles.
Hanging out orange lanterns in front of your house is a way of participating in this tradition. It alerts roving bands of Protestant vandals that the house is off limits. Originally the lanterns had paper or cloth shades – unlike pumpkins, turnips and beets don’t lend themselves well to this use and were most likely a last resort. With the invention of efficient artificial lighting, lanterns and “illuminations” lost some of their prominence as a way of making a statement, political or otherwise.
I’m planning to set out my orange lantern, even though it once conveyed a message I certainly don’t endorse. Customs endure even though the significance has changed. Customs like this, which bolster community spirit, die if they are worried to death by either Puritanism or overzealous political correctness, and they atrophy if so commercialized that people cease to be participants and become mere consumers.