by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
– Macbeth, Act IV, Scene 1
We’re midway through October, when black and orange decorations are popping up everywhere, and Americans add giant bags of sweets and great pumpkins to their shopping lists.
“Halloween” is a mashed-together spelling of All Hallows Eve, the night before All Saints’ Day, which in turn was a make-over by Christians of Samhain, the first day of the pagan Celtic New Year.
The ancient traditions of the Celts have come down through the ages to us, but transformed from solemn rites to pretend-scary fun for children: the diminutive ghosts and princesses, witches and super-heroes, pirates and zombies who appear on our doorsteps with bags outstretched for their share of the candy-loot.
Yet the echoes of the past can still make us shiver, just a little. The ghastly face lit by flickering candle flame of a well-carved Jack O’Lantern still spooks us, even though we adults pretend otherwise.
Carl Sandburg, one of America’s best-known and best-loved poets, wrote this tribute to our national gourd when his daughters were little girls:
I spot the hills
With yellow balls in autumn.
I light the prairie cornfields
Orange and tawny gold clusters
And I am called pumpkins.
On the last of October
When dusk is fallen
Children join hands
And circle round me
Singing ghost songs
And love to the harvest moon;
I am a jack-o’-lantern
With terrible teeth
And the children know
I am fooling.
David McCord wrote several books of poetry for children, mostly after he retired from a successful career as a fundraiser for Harvard, his alma mater. He lived to the age of 99. Here he captures perfectly the spirit of Halloween:
Mr. Macklin’s Jack O’Lantern
Mr. Macklin takes his knife
And carves the yellow pumpkin face:
Three holes bring eyes and nose to life,
The mouth has thirteen teeth in place.
Then Mr. Macklin just for fun
Transfers the corn-cob pipe from his
Wry mouth to Jack’s, and everyone
Dies laughing! O what fun it is
Till Mr. Macklin draws the shade
And lights the candle in Jack’s skull.
Then all the inside dark is made
As spooky and as horrorful
As Halloween, and creepy crawl
The shadows on the tool-house floor,
With Jack’s face dancing on the wall.
O Mr. Macklin! where’s the door?
Maurice Kilwein Guevara was born in Belencito, Colombia, but his family moved to Pittsburgh when he was two years old. He is a founding member of the National Latino Writers’ Association, and has published four volumes of poetry. His poem is definitely NOT for the little ones:
A Rhyme for Halloween
Tonight I light the candles of my eyes in the lee
And swing down this branch full of red leaves.
Yellow moon, skull and spine of the hare,
Arrow me to town on the neck of the air.
I hear the undertaker make love in the heather;
The candy maker, poor fellow, is under the weather.
Skunk, moose, raccoon, they go to the doors in threes
With a torch in their hands or pleas: “O, please . . .”
Baruch Spinoza and the butcher are drunk:
One is the tail and one is the trunk
Of a beast who dances in circles for beer
And doesn’t think twice to learn how to steer.
Our clock is blind, our clock is dumb.
Its hands are broken, its fingers numb.
No time for the martyr of our fair town
Who wasn’t a witch because she could drown.
Now the dogs of the cemetery are starting to bark
At the vision of her, bobbing up through the dark.
When she opens her mouth to gasp for air,
A moth flies out and lands in her hair.
The apples are thumping, winter is coming.
The lips of the pumpkin soon will be humming.
By the caw of the crow on the first of the year,
Something will die, something appear.
Using torch and bonfire to ward off the unknown out there in the dark are part of the fall and winter rituals of every culture, all the way back to the first humans who learned to make and keep fire.
Pumpkin-carving comes to us from an old Irish story of a man named Stingy Jack who tricked the Devil, not once, not twice, but three times. When Jack died, the Lord wouldn’t allow such a devious character to enter heaven, but when Jack fell into Hell, the angry Devil threw him out, with only a live coal to light his way in the darkness. Jack carved the insides out of a large turnip and put the coal in it, doomed to wander the earth as “Jack of the Lantern” – Jack O’Lantern.
When Irish immigrants came to America, they saw that pumpkins would be much easier to carve into lanterns than turnips, so they adopted them instead, adding to our uniquely American version of All Hallows Eve.
So make your pumpkin’s face really scary to ward off any ghosts or evil spirits who might come out to do mischief during the long dark hours of Halloween . . . . . just in case.
Thank you for reading this week’s Word Cloud.
SOURCES AND FURTHER READING:
Theme in Yellow – from Chicago Poems, 1916, by Carl Sandburg, Dover Thrift Edition, © 1994 by Dover Publications ISBN 0-486-28057-8
Mr. Macklin’s Jack O’Lantern – from One at a Time: His Collected Poems for the Young, © 1977 by David McCord – Little, Brown and Company
A Rhyme for Halloween – from Poems of the River Spirit, © 1996 by Maurice Kilwein Guevara, University of Pittsburgh Press
Word Cloud Photo by Larry Cloud