Arthur Cleveland Coxe, the 2nd Episocopal Bishop of Western New York in the 19th Century, was an author as well as a man of the cloth and spirit. Among his works is a long poem that he titled: “Halloween, a Romaunt” – using the archaic term for a prose ‘romance’. The poem was first published in 1840, though In his ‘Afterword’, Coxe notes that he wrote it much earlier, when he was a young man of 20. He also notes that the term Halloween is a ‘Scotticism’, and he describes the celebration of Halloween as the vigil which precedes All Saints Day. The night before – the ‘eve – hence, All Hallows Eve. He’s using the word ‘hallow’ in a spiritual sense – the etymology of ‘hallow’ is derived from an Olde English adjective, meaning ‘the holy man’ – though to many, a ‘Hallow’ can also be a spirit….or a ghost.
In his poem, Coxe writes –
There is a world in which we dwell; And yet a world invisible!
But he adds that ordinary human eyes are not capable of viewing the spirit denizens who populate the world of All Hallows Eve –
I tell ye, that, this very hour, Had but your sight a spirit’s power, Ye would be looking, eye to eye, At a terrific company!
If we mortals were only capable, Coxe implies, you would see that –
A thousand shapes are at your side
Today, as I write these words – nearly 175 years after Coxe published his Halloween verses – we no longer need the magic sight or ‘spirit’s power’ that our forbears believed were necessary to glimpse these thousand shapes –
What Coxe also calls – a thousand, hellish demon sprites –
Because in 2014, they all come out to play on All Hallows Eve – during the 24 hour period we now universally refer to as Halloween. And in Ashland, Oregon – my former adopted hometown, and home as well not only to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival but also to numerous small Theatre companies, there is an almost Shakespearian vibe in the air on Halloween –
I went there, last week, in the company of many others, and for a few hours, all cars and automobiles were banned from the streets –
And I found myself in the middle of this ritual gathering of which Coxe wrote nearly two centuries earlier, with all the spirits and magical sprites he mentioned, and other beings as well – from mythical Giants –
To the magical beasts –
The ancient Deities that walk the earth again –
A time when giant birds descend from the skies to walk alongside humans again –
And when humans themselves unfurl their own hidden wings –
Where werewolves and vampires rub shoulders with mortals, young and old –
The ordinary rules and preconceptions no longer seem to apply. With a few deft and artistic strokes of the makeup brush, different beings are revealed –
And new ones emerge –
And hitherto unsuspected temperaments may be revealed –
Mark Twain once commented that “clothes make the man”. And if we happen to see a Biker – or a Ballerina – we might make the mistake of thinking that we know who they are, solely from their garb –
But that would be a mistake – just as it would be a mistake to suppose that the only activity which interests a pale-faced zombie would be appeasing the hunger pangs of the undead. But when this zombie moves her bow across the strings –
We discover differently. You can’t judge someone only by what they wear. You have to look at what they do, as well – and if you take the time to really look, you may be rewarded –
But if indeed clothing does not ‘make’ the person, what can be said of the highest of all forms of clothing, that which surmounts all others …. the hat? Was the Mad Hatter whom Alice met in Wonderful ‘mad’ because of his hat? Or in spite of it? On Halloween, hats and headgear seem to possess some of magical or transformative capabilities that J.K. Rowling has written of. There are ancient hats whose writhing Medusa snakes may turn their viewers to stone –
And flowering hats whose rose aromas assail our nostrils –
And some headgear that just makes one grin –
And then there is the kind of headgear that Neil Gaiman speaks of –
“some hats can only be worn if you’re willing to be jaunty, to set them at an angle and to walk beneath them with a spring in your stride as if you’re only a step away from dancing”
Some Halloween headgear has a quiet, almost incongruous formality, buttressed by a sly sense of hat humor. Or as Ira Gershwin wrote –
The way you wear your hat,
The way you sip your tea,
The mem’ry of all that —
No, no! They can’t take that away from me!
While Dr. Seuss, in The Cat in the Hat, notes quite aptly , a propos of both hats – and cats – and other things as well –
Look at me!
Look at me!
Look at me NOW!
It is fun to have fun
But you have to know how.
Mark Twain wrote –
“Now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates.”
Though he may never have suspected it, there are actually some hats which, magically, on All Hallows Eve, can transform a person into the pirate she’s always longed to be –
But sometimes, when neither the clothing nor the headgear above it are sufficient, and in accordance with the ancient pre-Halloween Samhain traditions of mumming and guising, the modern reveler in search of transformation (both outer and inner) turns to the age-old remedy – to the antidote for the humdrum and the boring, for the predictable and the knowable – a cure which can also be a disease in itself –
The reasons we wear masks are myriad and mysterious. William Goldman, in “The Princess Bride”, suggests one reason –
“Why do you wear a mask and hood?”
I think everybody will in the near future,” was the man in black’s reply. “They’re terribly comfortable.”
Novelist Jim Butcher suggests another – that we crave ways to escape the quotidian –
“Life would be unbearably dull if we had answers to all our questions.”
While Gabriel García Márquez suggests still another reason – the need to mask the deepest of emotions … including love –
“She had never imagined that curiosty was one of the many masks of love.”
The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was born four years after Arthur Cleveland Coxe published his Halloween poem. Nietzsche had his own ideas about masks, quite a lot of them. He believed that –
“Every profound spirit needs a mask: even more, around every profound spirit a mask is continually growing.”
Novelist Christopher Barzak (why is it, by the way, that so many of the best words…come from good writers?) suggests that –
“Nothing is more real than the masks we make to show each other who we are.”
And then finally there is my favorite, the simple words of René Descartes –
“Masked, I advance.”
Of course, since it’s 2014, no Halloween festivities or revels would be complete without something that was not merely unknown but unimaginable back in 1840, when Coxe published his Halloween Romaunt – the ever-present cell-photographers who seem to define our New Millennium more than any other life form. But on All Hallows Eve, in the streets of Ashland, Oregon, they were both festive –
And dramatic –
And no celebration of All Hallows Eve – would be complete without…
The Dead. And their brethren, the Undead.
They come in many forms –
In all ages –
And in spite of their ghastly appearance, they seem to share the same family values of the ‘breathers’ aka the Living – including shared hugs –
And romance. Leo Tolstoy wrote that “every heart has its own skeletons” – but he neglected to mention that, on the days when the Dead walk again, skeletons – or Calaveras as they are known in Mexico, have not only hearts…but flowers as well –
And lest anyone get the wrong idea, we humans don’t really need to put on a costume, a disguise, face-paint or a mask to hide ourselves – or to find ourselves. None of that is necessary. You can just….be yourself –
Way back in 1963, Sydney Carter composed a hymn, inspired by both traditional English folksongs and carols, and American Shaker music. It was called “Lord of the Dance”. Among other things, it is about dancing – and ritual celebrations. One of the verses goes like this –
Dance, dance, wherever you may be
I am the lord of the dance, said he
And I lead you all, wherever you may be
And I lead you all in the dance, said he
When I went to the Ashland Halloween parade and revels last week, there was music everywhere – and everyone was dancing in the streets –
And there were many lords – and ladies – who graced us with their regal presence –
But after a long day and night when the spirits and souls of the departed walk and dance among us – after the last dance and the last overly-sugared Halloween candy – life returns to normal.
And life, as Albert Einstein once said, “is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.”