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Monday, 26 October 2009
The Dreary Misery of Halloween
I can imagine the title causing a raised eyebrow or two, especially among the American readers. That is why I have to write it. During later years, the American pumpkin-horror-trick-and-treating has made its commercially inspired efforts to find its way into our tradition, too. I'm sure it has had its effect on the younger generation - for better or for worse is still debated. For most people, I think they still feel like foreign traditions rather than "our own". Personally I'm still not comfortable with them - even post-Harry Potter. (Which did open up my mind a bit about pretend-scary being a way of dealing with real-scary...) But then again I'm not comfortable with "our own" traditions either...
Swedish Halloween-All Saints Day traditions are basically of much more solemn nature. It's actually the only holiday that has sort of grown more and more 'religious' in later years, while every other holiday has grown less and less so. Not necessarily Christian-religious, but still religious. It is the holiday when thoughts are turned to the dead and loved ones no longer with us. Graves are tended, covered up for the winter, and on this weekend thousands and thousands of candles are lit in the graveyards. This is also the time of year when all of nature dies and darkness falls; we pass from autumn to winter. The trees drop their last colourful leaves. The very last flowers shrivel up and disappear. The weather is totally unreliable - there are often rainstorms, sometimes frost or sleet or snow. More often than not, Halloween night is stormy, wet, icy cold, and pitch dark. At least, in my memories, it is. And still people insist on spending this night of all standing about in graveyards, trying to strike fire to matches and candles that the wind immediately blows out again and the rain will drench.
In my childhood memories, on Halloween, everyone was always in a bad mood. Whatever the weather, the graveyards would be visited - and at night. You lost your way in the dark, you got blinded by other people's candles, you stumbled upon things, your feet were freezing cold, your hands were numb, the wind turned your umbrella inside-out, the candles would not light, there was a lot of muttering between teeth if not outright swearing, and there was not one happy thought the whole day, because at heart, everyone was sad, and just wishing it would all be over. And no one could explain properly why exactly we were going through all this, except that it was what one was supposed to do. (And what would people think if one did not.)
My maternal grandmother died when I was six, some time in the early autumn I think. (While my mother was pregnant with my brother, and her sister with my oldest cousin.) So from then on, if not before, that's where my memories of the Halloween graveyard tradition start. Then my paternal grandfather died when I was 14, and in that churchyard there are several other old family graves as well. We made our rounds...
When as a young adult I moved away from home to another town, in another direction... I always avoided going home/ to my grandparents' town at Halloween. I was thoroughly glad to escape it all. The time of year still always managed to depress me, in spite of that. I never found Halloween church services uplifting either - choirs dressed all in black, solemn organ music, requiems, listings of all the people who died over the year...
Then for various reasons, I ended up moving to the town and neighbourhood of my family roots, after all of my grandparents had already left this earth. Some years later, my parents also moved back to the same neighbourhood. Halloween came upon us again... I still usually tried to avoid it.
Nine years ago, towards the end of October, something happened at my place of work back then, which was the start of my still ongoing vicious circle of chronic pain problems (neck-shoulder-arm). I don't want to put the details about that on the blog. But it's not a happy anniversary, and it does nothing to brighten up this time of the year for me.
One year ago, my father was still driving, but I was not too happy about that. Especially, I did not want him driving all the way into (or home from) town in the dark. I gave my parents two choices: Either I would go to the cemetery in town for them. Or if they still insisted on going themselves, they'd come to me for lunch, and we'd go to the cemetery while it was still daylight, and they must promise to go back home before it got dark. They said they'd think about it.
On Wednesday evening before Halloween last year, my father was brought into hospital after a fall at home, his leg muscles having failed him (he could not get back up on his feet again). He spent two weeks in the neurology ward, and nothing was ever to be the same again. My mother also had a shock and her health after this also deteriorated quickly. She died in May 2009. Dad still lives on in his own home with a lot of help from home care staff. One year ago, we would not have guessed that to be the situation today. But that's how it is.
Friday before Halloween last year, mum and I both went together to the hospital to visit dad. Mum then spent the night at my place. On Halloween Saturday, she went to the hospital to see dad, and then went back home on her own. I went to the cemetery in town, on my own, to my maternal grandparents' grave, and one more, to light candles; so at least mum would not have to think about that. It was an unusual Halloween in that it was a clear day, and very still. I also went before sunset, and alone, and by my own decision. It was peaceful and beautiful, and since it was not pitch dark I could actually see that. In a way, it was also oddly comforting that there were so very many other living people about at the same time, doing the same thing.
Seven months later, mum died. I took care of all the funeral arrangements. I dread this upcoming Halloween. As it looks right now though, my dad and my brother and I will also have the support of mum's sister and her husband, who will be joining us, on Saturday. I hope we'll somehow get through it together. But to say I'm looking forward to it, would be a gross exaggeration.
As I've written before on this blog - the grave next to my mum's belongs to a 16 year old girl who was murdered this past summer. Last week, a picture of her grave was all over the front page of the morning paper, because of the upcoming trial. I can't even put a name on how that makes me feel. It's just a Fact.
Anyway. If I won't be returning cheery wishes of "Happy Halloween" - now you know a bit about why.
If I had no other living person but myself to think of on that day (but I still do), this is what I think I'd do:
Before sunset, I'd go to the grave of my maternal great-grandparents, which is in a cemetery very close to where I now live. They died long before I was born, and I did not even know of this grave's existence until six months ago when my aunt showed it to me; but since I now pass that cemetery almost daily anyway, I have since then sort of adopted it as representative of all the other family graves I never go to. Not that I keep bringing flowers or candles or anything - I just walk by it. But at Halloween, I might take a candle there, and lighting it, let that be a symbolic nod (for myself) to all the other unvisited graves as well. After that I'd go home and make a cup of tea, and listen to some Celtic-inspired music. I'd probably choose the CD Under the Violet Moon with Blackmore's Night, and especially the song The Wind in the Willows. And then I'd watch Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (i.e. the first film) on DVD.
If all goes according to plan (which, however, remains to be seen), that's unlikely to be exactly what I will be doing on this particular Halloween Saturday. But I might do it some other day instead.