Spooking Ourselves

We have a new crop of Czech students in, working away in their community agencies, adjusting to a new environment, learning a great deal. The Czechs are surprised by the number of churches, and so close together. This seems a natural observation, as they stay on the Brescia campus and their stomping ground is the oldest part of town, with a church on nearly every corner.

But what really thrills them, gets them punching each other and drawing attention are all the Halloween decorations. From the first day of arrival they have had plenty to gawp at. One afternoon, the first rainy one we had had in months, they spied the old Victorian house on Frederica all done up with ghosts in the yard and stuffed figures of people with machetes on the porch. I slowed to a crawl, hoping the light would catch us so we might stop for photos; they had their phones out in three seconds flat. I lowered the rain-splattered windows, but the results were unsatisfactory.

Luckily, this fine old house and its fine decorations are on our regular route. Every time we pass it they take pictures. Any old drive around town produces plenty of pumpkins and witches and giant spiders on tree trunks, cobwebby shrubs and bushes. They thrill to the sight of all the Halloween goings-on with the same kind of thrill they experience when they see a yellow school bus.

They can’t quite believe we really celebrate Halloween like they have seen on TV, in the same way they don’t really believe the roads and streets of American towns are full of school buses. They think school buses only exist in the movies.

Halloween seems to be one of those iconic American events, like Thanksgiving and Super Bowl Sunday. The Czechs, under Communism, didn’t celebrate it.  Many of my friends over there are religious and the holiday never quite caught on, Halloween seeming, well, perhaps unseemly.

They don’t quite get the frivolity of an American Halloween, the kind of Halloween we celebrated as children. I was a princess exactly once, in a flammable nylon-y store-bought costume, loaded with glitter down the front and on the plastic wand and tiara. It got in my eyes and I couldn’t breathe nor see out of the plastic mask, which dripped with condensation. Good times.

Mostly we were hobos or Army men, because we had old clothes and my dad collected World War II memorabilia. Those standard issue gas masks were a nice touch.
The ancient Celts may have started all this Halloween business. They celebrated the New Year on November 1, a day to mark the end of the growing season and the hard winter to come. On the eve of the new year, the Celts believed the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead was very thin, which  explains the ceremonies, bonfires, and special costumes to ward off the bad and beckon the good.

I’m not sure where the candy and treats came into it, but I am grateful.

Since All Saints Day, or All Hallows’ Day as it was once called, is on November 1, followed by All Souls Day on Nov. 2 which is a day to remember those who have died, it makes some sense that on Hallows’ Eve we might want to cut loose a little and scare ourselves a bit with some foolishness.

It is a little like whistling past the graveyard or scaring ourselves with ghost stories to take our minds off the monsters lurking under our beds.  Is there a person reading this who, as a kid, couldn’t leap into bed from four feet out, an attempt to avoid the boney and grasping hands reaching for your ankles in the dark?

Our Czech students will have some typical late fall experiences. They have been to the Apple Fest and last week they attended Soup Day at Brescia, which will be interesting for them, since the Czech eat soup all the time but never, ever as an entire meal. They will help pass out candy on Halloween, and get to experience that. Maybe there will be a party for them to attend.

Their classmates who have come before them have gotten in the spirit of Halloween. I know because I’ve seen the rubber snaggle teeth, the pointed witches’ hats, the packages of fake cobwebs they leave behind. For the girls next year, they always say. They will need these things.


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