Halloween brings out the devil in me. Which is ironic, since the wearing of spooky costumes and masks supposedly originated as a method of protecting oneself from evil spirits. Not that I behave badly at this time of year; I just get a little mischievous.
In researching the roots of Halloween, I've found as much controversy over the subject as our own off-again, on-again Front Street festivities have stirred. While it's commonly accepted that Halloween evolved from the eighth century Christian observance of All Hallows Eve, the night before All Saints' Day, many attribute its origin to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. Two thousand years ago, the Celts celebrated their new year on Nov. 1 and believed that the spirits of the dead returned to earth the night before. For their deceased relatives, the living would set out edible treats and light candles to guide the spirits on their way. Kind of like the Japanese obon festival, but without the organized dance. The Celts also celebrated Samhain with huge bonfires and the wearing of costumes, mostly animal heads and skins, to ward off malevolent ghosts.
Centuries later, Europeans also believed that ghosts roamed the earthly realm on All Hallows Eve, so they wore masks when leaving their homes after dark, hoping to fool the ghosts into thinking they were fellow spirits. Trick-or-treating may have come from the old English custom of begging for soul cakes. Some say the church established the practice to counter the pagan ritual of leaving food out for wandering spirits. Beggars would go to homes and ask for the pastries, promising to pray for the household's dead in return.
A soul cake, a soul cake, have mercy on all Christian souls for a soul cake.
That's a far cry from Trick or treat, smell my feet, give me something good to eat!
Personally, I don't really care how Halloween began; I'm just grateful for a day on which costumes are sanctioned, or at least tolerated, by normal folks. If it were up to me, I'd have us all in costume, all the time. Well, maybe just on Fridays. Wouldn't that be fun, to put on a new identity once a week?
As a child, I loved dressing up and playing make-believe. Still do. That's what drew me to the stage in the first place. It's not what keeps me there, but it is a big part of the passion I feel for theater. There's something magical about masquerade. You are what you wear, at least for the moment.
While I've worn my share of witch hats and vampire teeth, I really prefer nontraditional costumes. I've been a Boy Scout, a belly dancer and a bunch of bananas. Not at the same time, of course. A couple of times, I even persuaded my straight-laced husband to join me in my folly, once as John Lennon to my Yoko Ono and, most memorably, a bag of rice to my bottle of shoyu. I really wanted us to be Sonny and Cher one year, but he refused to shave his mustache. He wouldn't even put on the long black wig.
Perhaps my penchant for dressing up is in the genes . . . or the jeans. One of my all-time favorite costumes was another duet, this time with my best friend in high school band class. Her mother was a seamstress and sewed denim shorts for a 500-pound man. We borrowed a pair and went as Siamese twins, each of us in one leg of the gigantic jeans.
But I digress. As I was saying, this costume addiction may be hereditary. One of my uncles was a practical joker who kept a couple of full head masks with matching gloves. Once, on an interisland flight, he put on his gorilla head and hands and pretended to be asleep when the flight attendant came down the aisle. He's lucky she didn't spill any coffee on him.
My mom had a ghoulish green mask and rubber hands to match. She enjoyed wearing them to answer trick-or-treaters at the door. She played it to the hilt, too. She'd open the door just enough to slide her gnarled, wart-covered fingers out along the edge, then she'd slowly pull the door open to reveal her wicked witch disguise. I'm pretty sure that more than one child ran off in fright before seeing Mom in all her glory.
These days, Mom, like me, prefers the homemade stuff over buying off the rack. Each Halloween, she comes up with a clever costume to wear to her senior lunch site. This year's is the best yet. She borrowed my Afro wig and is going as Willie K.
I may be the drama queen in the family, but Mom is the costume goddess.
* Kathy Collins is a performance artist, broadcaster and freelance writer whose "Sharing Mana'o" column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is email@example.com.