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A haunting time of year

Arthur Enterprise News editorial

It isn’t hard to understand why our ancient ancestors held a religious celebration this time of year, a remnant of which lives on in our Halloween.

The sun’s rays have weakened and leaves have fallen from the trees. Our ancestors would have done what they could to prepare for the icy onslaught everyone knew was coming – harvested field crops, slaughtered animals, piled fuel close to dwellings. All the food that could be preserved for winter would have been. Anything that could be done to secure buildings from the chill winds would have been done.

And yet, as so often happens at this time of year, after the first frosts have done their worst, there is a burst of warm weather – not the life-giving warmth of summer, but something unique to late autumn. Warm, yes, but with an underlying crispness. No perfume of flowers, but a spicy, earthy scent. Instead of the sweet trill of songbirds, there is the raucous cawing of crows, the restless honking of geese. No soft greens and pastels, but a million shades of brown and gold, punctuated with spatters of orange, crimson and violet.

And hovering just beyond the visible, a cold, colourless spirit, waiting, watching, getting ready to throw his deadly cloak over the world. In the days before central heat and polar fleece, winter was a fearsome monster, stalking and killing at will.

Disease thrived in the close confines of villages, there was never enough food to last the entire winter, and the cold and damp sapped the strength of even the young and healthy. Surviving until the sun once again grew strong was never a given.

Even in this modern era, most of us feel a sort of disquiet at this time of year. It’s not exactly fear, but something that could become fear under the right conditions. The rustling of leaves underfoot, the wisps of mist rising from the ground, the scurrying of tiny things in the bushes, the moon shining down through naked tree branches creating strange shadows, all seem to hint at something lurking, ready to pounce.

Not far beneath the surface of many a sophisticated 21st century man is an ancient human who wants nothing more than to light a giant bonfire, and keep the shadows at bay however he can.

In the old days he would take part of the fire with him wherever he went in a hollowed-out turnip or other carrier, and set it in windows and on mantles. He wouldn’t deny the fear but would try to harness it by celebrating it, even poking fun at it – carve a face in the make-shift lantern, don a scary mask and roam the village with other costumed merry-makers, accepting gifts of drink and food as they went. And he would join other villagers as they danced around the giant fire, praying to unseen spirits and gods.

Today we hollow out pumpkins and carve faces in them. Styrofoam gravestones and plastic ghosts sprout up on lawns, and strings of orange lights festoon shrubbery and doorways. Cartoon heroes, princesses and movie monsters join more traditional witches and ghouls to roam the neighbourhood, gathering pillowcases full of goodies.

More than one little goblin dashes home in a panic after seeing… something… next to the old, empty house. More than one teenager out with friends trying to scare people – good Halloween fun – manages to terrify himself and spends the rest of the evening turning on all the lights in the house and checking windows. More than one adult walks along the dark, leaf-covered path to the house a bit faster than usual, forcing himself not to glance back over his shoulder. The ancient one would understand completely.

There’s something about Halloween…

Happy haunting.

(Courtesy of Pauline Kerr, Editor, Wingham Advance Times)

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