Traveling of late through the Deep South, I'm here to report that we are ready for Halloween.
Three cloth ghosts — green, white and orange — dangle from the mantelpiece of our town's nursing home. A fatter-than-usual Winnie the Pooh sprawls in a Picayune, Miss., yard, sporting a pumpkin for his middle. Miniature skulls festooned with Spanish moss droop from the iron balconies of New Orleans' French Quarter. Even nature contributes to the decor: Our large local spiders spin stretched-out webs and lounge in fall's gusty breezes.
On Interstate 55, we pass a billboard flashing this orange-and-black headline: "Spirit of Halloween." But as we speed by before it can reveal its message, I'm left to wonder: As I'm about to enter what is euphemistically called "The Third Age," why is Halloween still so important to me — and to so many other older participants?
With wistfulness, I think of Halloweens past. These are early memories, suffused with yellow lamplight and the comforting touch of family. My grandmother, filling her deep, pink Depression glass bowl with penny candy from my grandfather's grocery, striding to answer the doorbell, and then the startling revelation of the trick-or-treaters. My first costume, Casper the Friendly Ghost, the chubby ghoul-child popular in the 1950s, bought at Woolworth's on Main Street, and proudly presented to me by my father. Then, years later, in 1988, another memory takes hold: My younger brother is buried on Halloween morning, and the day assumes a newer meaning, of him.
Courtesy of Teresa Nicholas
Freelance writer Teresa Nicholas has just completed a memoir about growing up in Mississippi.
Freelance writer Teresa Nicholas has just completed a memoir about growing up in Mississippi. Courtesy of Teresa Nicholas
Halloween has long been about honoring the dead. Many of us are familiar with its pagan Celtic origins and its fusion with the Catholic feast days of All Souls and All Saints; centuries later, in the mid-1800s, millions of Irish fleeing the potato famine began to popularize Halloween in the States. By the 1920s and '30s, it had become a largely secular celebration. Today, Halloween is a $6 billion industry, the kickoff of the holiday shopping season, dripping with Dracula and Frankenstein wannabes and more ghouls, ghosts and goblins than you can shake a broomstick at.
In Mexico, where I spend part of each year, people are quick to point out that their Day of the Dead is not a version of our Halloween. There, they celebrate by remembering loved ones, decorating family graves with marigolds, and setting out sugar replicas of the deceased's favorite foods — miniature hamburgers, tiny tacos and bottles of tequila.
Here, Halloween holds for adults a nostalgic harkening back to childhood, a chance to party and play dress up. Yet even with its revelry and commercial underpinning, Halloween is also our nod to mortality, a way of poking fun at it, marking the deepening of the fall season, and the deepening of the seasons of our lives.
Teresa Nicholas is a freelance writer who divides her time between Yazoo City, Miss., and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. She has just completed a memoir about growing up in Mississippi, which is on submission to publishers.