Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Symbols of Halloween-Write about Holidays

Masked bandits on the hunt for candy

Unmasked, the bandits return exhausted with their loot.
Parents and neighbors beware. Halloween is here again! Another night for fun and laughter and lots of adventures to write about. Parents and grandparents, your children and grandchildren will love to read about them as they grow up and spend time together with you remembering. Holidays in peoples' lives create bonding and community with family and friends as most other days rarely do.

Halloween, like other holidays, has symbols that represent what the day means to us. I have often wondered why we developed the tradition of masks and jack o lanterns for Halloween (hallows eve). Strange. Okay. Masks I could understand. Sure it's fun and exciting for people, especially kids, to scare others and growl at people who won't know who they are. Yes, there is safety in anonymity. You won't know who the person is until s/he is willing to take off the "mask." Kind of like life, don't you think? Lots of us put on masks when we don't want others to know who we are. Besides, it's fun to pretend we are someone else.

But jack o lanterns? Why pumpkins? Except of course that Halloween is in fall and the pumpkins are plentiful and ready to pick at that point. They are easy to hollow out and carve. Actually pumpkins also seem to be rather popular in fairy tales: "Peter, Peter Pumpkin eater, had a wife and couldn't keep her. He put her in a pumpkin shell and there he kept her very well." You remember Cinderella who went to the ball in a transformed pumpkin (coach).  And then there was Pumpkin Head in the Land of Oz. And the pumpkin in the Grim fairy tales. But a carved face and lights in the pumpkin? That made no sense to me.

So I decided to check on the internet to see how the tradition of jack o lanterns came to be. To my astonishment this is what I found:

Some people say that jack o lanterns originated in Ireland (late eighteenth century) where the Irish hollowed out turnips, mangelwurtzel, and beets, and carved grotesque faces on them to represent spirits and goblins. October 31 (Halloween) - November 1 (All Saints Day) was known as Samhain and it was thought of as the time that spirits and fairies were particularly active. Apparently turnips were hollowed out and turned into lanterns to light guisers (disguised people) on All Hallows Eve. Some say that the lanterns represented Christian souls in purgatory or the undead. Others say that they were set on windowsills to keep the evil spirits and vampires away.

The story of Jack-O'-Lantern, a thief, who made a pact with the devil not to take his soul, was told and retold in different forms all over Western Europe. In most versions Jack dies and he can neither be admitted into heaven or hell. He begs for light and the devil throws him an ember that will glow forever. Jack carves a turnip and tosses the ember inside to light his way endlessly as he wanders the earth.

Wow! Now that's a story. But did you notice how often I said, "Some say---" or "Others say---?" In plain words the jack o lantern became a myth and a symbol, and each group of people modified the story as it served them best when they retold it. It reminds me of playing "telephone" when I was young.And that's how symbols are born.

So writers and readers, try something different this holiday season. Is there something you wish to teach your children or others? Create symbols (metaphors) by slightly changing and emphasizing certain areas of your stories. Take a different perspective than you usually do. Create a "parable." Write the stories down, and share them with others, such as your children.
More on how to do this on Friday November 1st in my next blog.

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