If you’re anything like me, you grew up – as an Aussie kid – having (relatively civil) fights with your parent(s) about the significance of Halloween.
Parents: “Clare, it’s so American”
Me: “But Jack is doing it with his family!”
Parents: “It’s just not us”
Me: “But I want lollies”
I didn’t realise it at the time, but we were clearly coming at it from two, quite different angles.
Understanding this has recently had me considering the meaning of Halloween in a little more depth. Are you down with the history behind the holiday?
Halloween and its pagan roots
This explainer video will get you off to a pretty good start (enjoy the British accent), but in a nutshell, the roots of the Halloween festival we know today are understood to have started in Ireland around 2000 years ago. The Celts believed that the arrival of the colder, darker months brought with it the arrival of death and the spiritual world. At sunset on the 31st of October, a festival called Samhain was celebrated, one which welcomed back to earth the the spirits of the dead. The word Halloween comes from the Christian festival Hallowmas, a three-day festival held to honor the dead. At the start of the 11th century, the Pope decided the festival would be held from the 31st of October to the 2nd of November. Why? To convert those pesky pagans, of course! The 31st of October, known as All Hallows Eve in the Christian faith, was eventually shortened to the festival we know today: Halloween.
Regardless of from which kind of faith one approaches it, the overarching theme – to me – is pretty much the same: honor and make way for the spirits of the dead, right? Anyway, the Irish brought their Halloween traditions to the US in the 1840s and the rest, as they say, is history.
I mean, check out these disastrously creepy homemade costumes from c.1900. Can you really blame consumerism for sweeping in and cleaning up our ideas of what Halloween couture should look like?
But as with all elements of culture and tradition, I guess that the meaning of Halloween – and the significance people draw from it – changes a huge deal from person-to-person and from culture-to-culture.
Take Australia, for example. The evolution of what Halloween means to us and the people back home has been a pretty interesting process to witness. In the posh little suburb of Brighton, Victoria, Australia (which some of you will remember is where I lived before I made the big move nearly 12 whole months ago), 31 October would amble around and you’d maybe see a few of the houses on the street decorated with smatterings of spiderwebs and ghoulish, blow-up decorations. Perhaps you’d see a few plasticky ‘GET OUT’ signs and fake police tape strewn across front doors and lawns. And, if you were lucky, you’d even see a few pumpkins scattered here and there on people’s front steps (*ahem*… stoops).
But here? Oh, my. Here it’s a sea of orange.
Our first American Halloween
Oh, my. So… as soon as fall (see: autumn) comes along, the pumpkin-themed food comes out to play. There are pumpkin lattes, pumpkin soups, pumpkin pies… it’s orange. Literally everywhere.
There’s only one problem:
I hate pumpkin. I mean, I despise it. I don’t know when or where the hatred started, but I’ve had an aversion for as long as I can remember.
Image source: Starbucks
I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m going to have to try something pumpkin-flavoured here eventually. I mean, how can I have an opinion on it if I don’t? Manufactured pumpkin flavour probably doesn’t taste anything like actual pumpkin flavour anyway, right? If you have suggestions about what I should try, I’m happy to (hesitantly) take them onboard…
Anyway, what I’ve tried to do this season is make like the Celts and use these crazy, orange, disgusting-tasting vegetables as Halloween props only.
Yep. That’s more my thing.
The use of pumpkins for carving – undoubtedly one of the most important rites of passage come Halloween time in the States – was done as a way of using up excess vegetables come harvest time as decorations for places of communal gathering and Halloween celebration.
Pumpkins literally line the streets here in Palo Alto. I mean, not a single house doesn’t have a stack of pumpkins outside of it. In fact, it’s unusual to see a house without pumpkins of all shapes, sizes, and carved facades literally covering the lawn or stoop.
It’s an amazing family activity, too. And the girls absolutely loved it!
Orange, orange, orange. As far as the eye can see…
On the actual day of Halloween, my morning began, of course, at home. I got the girls ready, trying my best to settle them given they were incredibly excited for what was to come that night (see: their first trick or treating adventure). I then jumped in the car, drove past all the incredible decorations on people’s houses and rocked up to work where, I realised with horror, I was one of the only ones not in fancy dress.
Damn you, Clare. You think you would have learned by now!
There’s always next year…
The work celebration
Given my workplace doesn’t do a heap of celebration (it’s usually a heads down, butts up kind of workplace, to be honest), it was a pretty big deal that a couple of hours were set aside early in the date for diving head-first into Halloween celebrations.
There was food, drink, and Halloween-themed activities, and we even got to leave work a little early to prepare for the evening ahead.
Okay, so perhaps the most important things (at least according to the girls). Just like my colleauges, my family and I had been thinking about our costumes for some time. Maybe a few weeks? I can’t quite be sure. Regardless, that’s absolutely nothing compared to the effort that some Americans put into planning their outfits, I tell you.
Nonetheless, let me present to you the little Mence-Barrins Halloween clan of 2018. We have…
Clara the pirate:
Coco the skeleton:
Cece the witch:
Cam the ghost with an ill-fitting child’s skeleton mask (long story)... and me, the (adult) skeleton, with the whole family:
Armed with our little goodie baskets and a heap of excitement, we met up with our lovely friends and set off down the street.
During trick-or-treating, costumes tend to act as really great conversation starters. It’s a totally amazing festival-like atmosphere; kids laughing and screaming with joy (or fear… who knows?), people meeting up with friends, comments here and there on how scary someone’s mask is or how ridiculously overfull some kid’s lollie bag (*ahem*… sorry… candy bag) is… what I realised, walking around the beautifully alive streets of Palo Alto on that warm, Californian evening was that Halloween, more than anything, is actually one, big community-building activity. Say what we like about it back in Australia… it makes sense here. Just like any big, cultural event, when people really own it, it can be super exciting and satisfying to participate in!
As we walked down Addison St, a lovely, lush boulevard-of-a-street not far from our (more modest) street, we wandered into a yard covered in the most amazing decorations I’ve ever seen. There were pumpkins bigger than humans. There was a huge, library-esque room of the house lined floor-to-ceiling with bookshelves full of candy and soft toys. The girls were absolutely awestruck and their beautiful little eyes were like saucers – I don’t think I’ve ever seen them like that. The girls got to pick one box of candy and one soft toy each, and we walked back out of the house to enjoy some more of the incredible decorations.
As Cam and I kind of hung out near the front gate, waiting for the girls to finish up and come back to us, I said to him “Cam, this place is incredible. I wonder if it’s Marissa Mayer’s house!” (I’d heard it was just around the corner from us).
I was right. Because guess who was standing right behind me as I said it (thanks, Cam)? That’s right. Marissa Mayer. The former CEO of Yahoo!.
These pics were taken at Marissa Mayer’s house. If you look closely, you can see her in the first pic (red scarf on her head)!
You know what they say: when in Rome/Palo Alto…
…you gotta drop by the Silicon Valley tech execs’ houses for Halloween!
Larry Page, Marissa Mayer, Steve Jobs’ house (courtesy of his widow, Laurene Powell), the Zuckerberg mansion… it’s just what you do. In fact, it was incredible… there were DJs, hired actors, lights, confetti, and holy cr*p… candy galore. I’ve read in a few places that Silicon Valley’s most famous people see it as their way of giving back to the community. They do this in lots of other ways, of course, but for many, it’s about doing something incredibly fun and creating some magic for the children in their lives and in their community.
And yes. The decorations. There’s only one word for that: wow.
Okay, okay. Maybe a second: WTF.
Let the pictures speak louder than words:
While there was a massive lot of preparation, energy and adrenaline involved in getting ready for our very first American Halloween, and while I’m unreservedly opposed to overblown commercialism in general, I have to say that I had a huge amount of fun this year.
The magic that was created for the girls, the things we got to do together as a family, and – perhaps most importantly – the way in which we got to come together with our new community, in our new home, and do something fun, communal, and kind of exhilarating, was a joy. I can’t wait for next year.
But please just stop with the pumpkin lattes, already.