Walk #1: Halloween 2013

Walk #1: Halloween – Home to Vons and back ~ 2.5 miles

Thursday, October 31st, 2013, ~7:45 PM – 8:45 PM, Long Beach, California, U.S.A.

It was Halloween night and I had no food in the apartment. I decided I would go to the store for once instead of getting fast food or ordering in. It was a nice enough night that instead of driving, I figured I’d just walk down to the Vons by the Belmont Pier and enjoy the evening. It had also occurred to me that this being Halloween, driving anywhere would incur the risk of running over some trick-or-treating toddler dressed as Tyrion Lannister or something.

I took a nice big bong rip and grabbed a canvas grocery bag. It’s been nearly 3 years since Long Beach fully implemented its plastic bag ban and made stores start charging a dime for paper, but I’m still usually halfway down the stairs before I realize I need my own bag and have to turn around. But I remembered that night, so I stuffed the bag in my jacket pocket and headed downstairs to the street. As Broadway opened before me, I was immediately met by the seething masses of humanity streaming through the neighborhood. Though we rarely get any trick-or-treaters at our apartment complex, our area is packed every year and that year was no different.

Another of the afore-mentioned college classes to which I paid less than my full attention was a Greek mythology course at Pitzer. The primary resource for the class was Robert Graves‘ The Greek Myths. In this 1955 book, Graves has collected and distilled most of Greek mythology from the various available sources. Each chapter is split into two sections, the first, dealing with a particular mythical figure or event, simply included a narrative with the different variations of each myth from different sources. The second section of each chapter is Graves’ interpretations of these myths. The one thing I vividly remember about that class is the professor discouraging, practically forbidding us from reading those interpretations and to stick with the assigned sections. You see, Mr. Graves was primarily a poet and writer, and his scholarship on history and anthropology was not taken seriously by the experts in those fields.

Well, back in college, I took my professor’s advice and only read the actual mythology bits, when I did any of the reading at all. But a couple years after I graduated, on an earlier dig through my closet-boxes, I decided to give old Bobby Graves another shot, and this time, I was gonna read everything; I wanted to see what was so crazy it would poison our soft, under-graduate minds to even read. Turns out, it is amazing. It also turned out that I could only understand about a quarter of what he was saying, and not just because I hadn’t paid attention in school. This was some out-of-left-field shit and I immediately understood why the prof had advised as he did.

Down the street a bit, I squeezed my way through the crowd that was already starting to form in front of Gallagher’s to the light at the corner. I crossed Broadway and entered the more residential part of the neighborhood. There were scads of kids everywhere being chased after by exasperated adults. I didn’t notice many of the actual costumes. I was looking out for Tyrion, but sadly, to no avail. The family dressed as all the Wizard of Oz characters (including the dog) would have been adorable if it weren’t for the fact that little Dorothy looked like she was kinda pissed and didn’t want to be there. It was definitely more for mom and dad.

But I was over the crowds and kids pretty quickly and started looking for a less busy route to the store. I managed to navigate my way through the ocean of costumed children down to Ocean Boulevard, not far from the actual ocean. Since there are no houses on the far side of the street, that seemed like the best way to go. I crossed at the light and started down the walkway along the bluff overlooking the beach. There was a smattering of people out in the park and down on the beach, but far fewer than back in the streets. The thing about being at the beach at night around here is that it is hard to tell at first which beach-people are just visiting and which ones actually live there. I like to play the game “Hipster or Homeless?” as silhouettes emerge from the darkness. Honestly I could probably still play that game in the daytime. Beards.

Graves’ interpretations of the Greek myths are highly speculative (he admits as much in the book’s introduction) and esoteric, but he boldly attempts to answer questions deemed unanswerable by mainstream scholars. He probes the boundary between history and mythic pre-history. Many of his theories have been proven false by subsequent archaeological discoveries and other modern advancements, and he was criticized even in his own time for being too eager to make connections in contradiction to standard explanations with scant evidence to support his claims. While he may not have gotten all the details right, Graves’ unique way of thinking about mythology has been too easily dismissed along with his actual theories. The mythography of Ancient Greece was written in epic poetry, and Graves brings a poet’s perspective to his analysis. But he also had a thoroughness and attention to detail in his work that highlighted his vast, encyclopedic knowledge of, not only Greek mythology, but that of virtually every other major culture of the old world.

But Graves is just a detour on our way to our next character in this Halloween tale. One of the main reasons I was unable to understand Graves was his continued references, both direct and indirect, to the theories and work of Sir James George Frazer, namely his book, The Golden Bough, first published in various volumes between 1890 and 1915. A lot of what can be said about Graves’ ideas can also be said about Frazer’s. But Frazer was sort of the Godfather of it all. The Golden Bough was the first attempt of its scope and nature to compare and analyze the various religious and mythological beliefs of mankind throughout history and around the world. His theories focused primarily on the rituals of sacrifice and beliefs about life and death.

As I was walking past the windsurf shop and Chronic Tacos some nutsack on a bicycle zoomed right past me on the sidewalk, missing me by like an inch. There are miles and miles of bike lanes and paths in this city, this stretch of Ocean had no traffic on it at the time, and it is illegal here to ride on the sidewalk in a commercial zone. But the first thing that came to my mind was that I almost ended up like my buddy Jean-Jacques on his second walk, when he was plowed over by a Great Dane barreling down the street and got all busted up. Yeah that happened. Sounds like a Smiths song, I’m sure Rousseau would be a fan.

While Frazer falls victim to many of the same errors as Graves, his work was important in that it did not examine the topic of religion from a theological perspective. He was trying to be impartial and scientific, a novel approach in his time. And although it’s easy to see bias in his work today (i.e. value judgments implied in his arbitrary hierarchy of “stages” of religious development, not to mention a smattering of blatant racism), he deserves credit for using the same, dispassionate tone while discussing Christianity that he uses when discussing other religions, from the ancient Celts to modern day tribes in New Guinea. In fact much of the controversy over his work when it first came out was regarding his unorthodox views on Judeo-Christian mythology. Later on in the 20th Century, Frazer’s book gained a bit of pop-culture influence and celebrity, with shout-outs from H. P. Lovecraft and T. S. Eliot, among others. You can even see a copy of The Golden Bough on Marlon Brando‘s table in Apocalypse Now.

Although Frazer’s ideas were taken a bit more seriously in the academic community than Graves’ would be later, and though he did have some measure of influence, his work would ultimately share the same fate as Graves’. Today, they are both disregarded by most scholars for many of the same reasons. They both over-reach beyond what the evidence calls for in their attempts to make connections or generalizations about different religious beliefs. They both put too much trust in the reliability of various sources they use. And they both try too hard to draw distinct lines and definitions around subjects inherently resistant to such efforts. Not that they are necessarily wrong in all cases, it’s just that their ambition is greater than the available evidence allows for. Like Graves, Frazer’s factual inaccuracies and methodological shortcomings have blinded people to his unique perspective on the study of myth and religious thinking. There’s value there that people are missing.

I got to Vons and about half the people in there were dressed in costume buying booze. It’s a small store and it looks really nice since they re-modeled a few years back. But God damn, the limes sure do suck there. And that goes the same for most of the big grocery stores around here. But whenever I go up to Anaheim Street to the carniceria, I find the most beautiful limes ever. Hell, even the limes at liquor store down the street look better than these weak-ass Vons limes. So I bought the weak-ass Vons limes. I also got a loaf of French bread and some actual food for actual dinner.

The checkout line was longer than usual. There was only one register open but the self-checkout was empty. Then I noticed the sign posted that said that, as of 09/19/2013, California Assembly Bill 183 prohibits alcohol from being purchased through self-checkout. Hahahaha! Happy Halloween, assholes! I didn’t have any alcohol myself but I waited in line anyway. I was in no rush and I hate using those stupid self-checkout stations when I have produce and my own bags. They always fuck up. And besides, that isn’t my damn job. I’ve already spent enough time in my life behind a register working that I don’t need to do it when I’m buying food. Dear Mr. Vons: I’d be more than willing to pay a few cents more for my weak-ass limes if you’d actually hire more people to do the job of, you know, running the damn store. Long Beach needs jobs, and the Belmont Shore people I see shopping here all the time can afford it. Or, heaven forbid, take it out of your profits. P.S. Your limes suck.

Frazer commented a bit on Halloween and its pagan origins. He compares the “day of the dead” customs of several unrelated cultures around the world. They are all unique of course, but there are a few recurring themes: the dead return to the world of the living for one night of the year, and the living must be hospitable to them, lighting lights to guide their return, and offering them food and/or shelter. He notes that these festivals often coincide with the new year’s celebration of that particular culture, and that the Celtic new year was November 1st, the beginning of winter in the lands the Celts inhabited.

This is a bit odd, however, as Frazer explains. Most other pre-Christian European cultures held their new year’s festivals and major holidays around the solstices/equinoxes or at times related to the planting and harvesting of crops. But the Celts’ main festivals of Beltane (April 30th/May 1st) and Samhain (October 31st/November 1st) seem to correspond better to a pastoral calendar, matching the times of year when herds are driven out to pasture and brought back for the winter. Frazer suggests that this indicates these festivals date back to a time when the Celtic people relied mainly on a pastoral, rather than agricultural, subsistence.

Frazer surmises that the Celtic October/November date for the festival spread throughout the other pagan cultures of Europe, and was the common date for various festivals of the dead across the continent. This continued through the Roman era as Christianity spread throughout Europe. Now, the conversion of pagan Europe was not a simple thing and didn’t happen overnight. The Romans would conquer a pagan tribe and force the king and elite families to convert, with a wink-and-a-nod sort of understanding that as long as they stayed in line, and the nobles affected a nominal display of Christianity, Rome wouldn’t pay too close attention to the actual practices of the masses. As a result the populace largely maintained its old customs, with minor modifications here and there. It was often more politics than theology.

So in that post-Roman context, the early-Medieval church had its work cut out for it, finishing off the conversion of places neglected by the Romans. The church practice of Christianizing pagan deities and holidays in order to more easily convert the locals continued through this period. Frazer suggests that these festivals of the dead were particularly difficult to suppress, so much so that in 835 A.D., Holy Roman Emperor Louis the Pious took the advice of Pope Gregory IV and formally moved the date of the church’s Feast of All Saints from May 13th to November 1st. The date was set for All Saints’ Day or All Hallows Day. The intention, according to Frazer, was to give a Christian flavor to these pagan festivities by changing the object of veneration from the souls of one’s dead relatives to the departed saints instead.

But this apparently didn’t work well enough the first time, because in 998 A.D., Benedictine Abbot Odilo of Clugny, France, went ahead and established the Feast of All Souls on November 2nd, acquiescing to the popular demand for a day to commemorate the general departed. The British tradition of baking “soul-cakes” for children and the poor on All Souls’ Day is thought to be a direct antecedent of trick-or-treating, as the poor would go out “souling” door-to-door. But as a second attempt to supplant the pagan festival, it can be viewed as as much of a failure as the first; the solemn nature of the Catholic All Souls’ Day was never able to tear people away from the revelry of All Hallows’ Eve.

The old pagan festival of the dead was a natural time for the reading of omens for the new year. Frazer recounts folk divination traditions that persisted in former Celtic lands: from the strange (throwing melted lead into water and interpreting the resulting shapes), to the light-hearted (blindfolded girls picking cabbages to see what their future husbands will be like), to the more familiar (bobbing for apples). Small items such as coins, rings, or berries were baked into cakes, and whoever got a certain item in their piece of cake would have a specific fate for the upcoming year. In the Scottish Highlands, the ashes of bonfires from Halloween night were used to tell the future. Each household had its own bonfire and they often competed to see who could build theirs the biggest. Apparently, neighborly competition over Halloween displays is not just a phenomenon of the suburbs. Frazer also records that on the Isle of Man groups of people would go around town on Halloween night, singing new years’ songs in the old Manx language. These Manx singers were engaging in an activity called “mumming” or “mummering”, which, as you will see, bears a striking resemblance to some of our modern-day holiday traditions.

After paying for my groceries, I headed back home. On the sidewalk outside, a group of dirty skater kids was walking past. As they did, one of them shouted back “John Lennon!” Ha! It must have been my glasses. And with my grocery bag full, I now totally looked like a trick-or-treater. And also I’ll admit, I do kinda always look like I’m in costume. I’ll take John Lennon. That’s better than “ironic hipster douche-bag”, which is what I was going to say if anyone asked me what I was dressed as.

Trick-or-treating has been linked to the previously-noted practice of “souling” as well as Christmas wassailing (caroling), but these practices have their own, much older origins in mumming. Mumming, as described by Phyllis Siefker in her 1997 book Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men, “consists of masqueraders going from house to house, where they sing and perform skits, after which they give, or receive gifts from the graced household.” She posits mumming as the progenitor of both trick-or-treating and wassailing. This connection of Halloween with Christmas-time is only natural when you think of them in the context of new years’ celebrations, with many cultures marking the new year at the Winter Solstice.

Mumming was primarily done during Christmas-time and the parallels to caroling should be obvious, but there was also more of a trick-or-treat aspect that wasn’t just an idle threat. The mummer troupes typically consisted of the lower classes while they visited the houses of the well-to-do. And when they demanded gifts or money from their hosts, they didn’t like taking “no” for an answer. The line between joyous revelers and angry mob was not always so distinct (Looking at you, Giants fans).

By the time we have records of these folk customs in the middle ages, the mumming plays themselves were likely not of their original form, but the common theme of the death and resurrection of the Wild Man persisted. The Wild Man figure, masked, horned, and/or covered in fur or foliage, is an ancient one that first appears to us in literature in the person of Enkidu, in the Sumerian/Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh. The Wild Man is generally regarded as a representation of nature and fertility. In the mumming troupe, the Wild Man was the one who most vehemently demanded gifts from the host and had social license to commit all kinds of mischief and insults if he was denied. As the pagan aspects of the figure became less acceptable in Europe, the Wild Man character became the Court Fool in the plays, but he retained his license for mischief and unrestrained speech.

The Wild Man and his troupe of masked revelers going from house to house on the eve of the new year were associated with the spirits of the dead, believed to return to the living world that same night. Similar propitiations had to be made to the dead or risk suffering their anger, as with the mummers themselves. However, the anger of the dead was expected to result in things like blighted crops, not just stolen or damaged property. Siefker suggests the possibility that the practice of mumming originated out of a form of ancestor worship, in order to solicit their blessings and avert their wrath.

A little way further up the hill, I jaywalked back across to the inhabited side of Ocean Boulevard and continued on my way. I was really wondering at that point how many people would think that with my Vons bag I was a 34 year old man out trick-or-treating by myself. Awesome. I was sorely tempted to start knocking on doors and telling people I was John Lennon, but I restrained myself. I passed by a group of high-school kids who also looked a bit too old to be trick-or-treating. Well, one of them must have glanced at the loaf of French bread sticking out of the top of my grocery bag as I walked past, because I heard from behind me: “Woah, sandwich!” I almost busted up laughing right there. He totally thought I had scored a big-ass submarine sandwich from trick-or-treating at what was obviously the coolest house ever. I hope he searched all night for the magical house that was giving away sandwiches. I would have told him the truth but I’m sure it would have broken his little heart.

Siefker points out that in the Middle Ages, terms like “elves”, and “fairies” were used to refer to people who still engaged in pre-Christian practices, not just the supernatural beings we think of today. There is further evidence that elves/fairies/dwarves/goblins/etc. are also sometimes references to older, perhaps aboriginal, European cultures who inhabited the lands before the Celts and other Indo-European speaking peoples arrived. The new-comers would have had a complicated relationship with the indigenous people: relying on them at first for their local knowledge and “magic”, but later dominating and supplanting them culturally until their memories were just myth and folk-tales. Siefker suggests they would have been reduced to menial labor to subsist, but would have retained their aura of magic and sacredness, receiving gifts and honors from those they served. However, there also would have been much exchange and mixing; it wouldn’t just have been one group conquering and exterminating another.

The “fairy folk” had to be honored and given their due, even after the term ceased to be associated with actual people. They were still powerful spirits that commanded respect. Gifts were offered to these fairy spirits from the cultural past, the same as we see offerings made to the returning souls of one’s ancestors, which is essentially the same thing. Masked, costumed revelers going from house to house acted as the representation of these spirits collecting their rewards for bringing prosperity. And it makes sense in a social-class context as well: the laboring classes were the “fairy folk” who did all the actual work, taking back a little bit from their rich oppressors. This might not be too far from the truth, given that conquering civilizations often only installed a new ruling class that culturally dominated the defeated, pre-existing population, but did not replace them.

I walked up Orizaba from Ocean back to Broadway, passing one of the giant mansion/castles on 1st Street. I wonder if these rich people complain about the trick-or-treaters pouring in from other parts of town? Long Beach is strange in that just a few blocks north from these palaces people start putting bars on their windows. Different social classes living in such close proximity is almost an anachronism these days. If I had walked the same distance in a different direction it would practically be like going to a different city. Some people bemoan the ugly cracker-box apartment complexes that popped up all over town during periods of lax zoning codes, and yes, a lot of them are architectural eyesores, but a city needs population density. This may not have been the best way to go about it, but the city needs inexpensive housing options in all parts of town. And not just so that I can afford to live by the beach. Density creates a critical mass of people and income diversity within neighborhoods which are the things that make Long Beach, or any city, a good place to live. It pulls people to improve from opposite directions: people are better when they live with those who are different from themselves, allowing for a greater range of opportunities and experiences, while at the same time, a larger pool of people from which to select the company you keep increases the odds you will find people who share your values. De-urbanization is killing us.

But increased population density puts pressure on infrastructure to accommodate all the new people. Transportation is one aspect of this that residents of L.A. County are all too familiar with. As I was walking back down Broadway I was passed by the L.B. Transit 112 bus. That reminded me that if this had been Halloween in the 1920s or ’30s instead of 2013, I could have taken a trolley for this little excursion. Broadway used to actually be called Railway Street and had trolley tracks running down it to about Redondo. There, they turned south to merge with the tracks on Ocean Boulevard that at one time ran all the way down the Alamitos Peninsula and across the mouth of the San Gabriel River on their way to Newport Beach. There’s always idle chatter about bringing the street-car back to Long Beach. If they do that, I would want it to be for more than nostalgia and a tourist trap though. It should actually serve a greater purpose and be integrated with plans to increase density downtown and encourage smart development on all those empty parking lots. Long Beach has the potential to be a real city and not just the red-headed step-child of L.A. County. Of course that starts with removing the breakwater so we are no longer the toilet down which the L.A. River flushes all the shit from the rest of the county. But that needs to be accompanied by a marked increase in affordable housing development to offset the rising rents due to having a real beach again. Supply & demand.

Siefker crosses paths with Frazer when she relates the idea of the Wild Man, representing nature’s seasonal cycle of death and rebirth, with that of the Sacrificial King. In some areas of Europe, there is evidence that ancient cultures used to ritually sacrifice their kings or priests after a certain term in office. Frazer devotes most of The Golden Bough to unraveling this very topic: essentially, the king or priest was seen as the consort of the mother-goddess, and a temporal (and expendable) manifestation of the fertility of nature. Like the sun and the seasons, he was destined to continually die and be born again in the body of the next to hold the office. Siefker connects this with the death and resurrection of the Wild Man in mumming plays.

As the king’s duties became more political and military rather than religious, he obtained the power to avoid his fate, sometimes substituting a totem animal as the sacrifice, or by sacrificing a surrogate mock-king (sometimes the king’s son, the court fool, or a condemned criminal) who was treated like royalty for a short time before being executed.

Siefker speaks of ancient Irish kings dying every seven years on Samhain, killed at the festival of Tara. Then, the new king was coronated by sacred marriage to the earth-mother goddess. Many of the kings are said to have been killed by the “fairy folk” gathered in disguises, and a surprising number died in the flames of their own homes, likely falling victim to what C.F. Dalton called the “masquerade of the plebs”. He found it probable that the lower-classes would stage a mock attack on the king’s residence each festival year which would turn real if the king had not been a good/popular ruler. The Tara festival continued to be held until the 7th century, but masked mobs of “fairy folk” would still gather to attack the houses of unpopular neighbors to drive them out of town as late as the 18th century. These masquerade mobs could have been the pre-cursors to the dramatized Wild Man mumming plays.

While we may not kill kings, loot rich houses, and drive away the assholes, trick-or-treating has managed to retain a number of basic elements from its earlier precedents. One of the most ancient of these elements is the flipping of the social order and relaxing of taboos and societal norms, another example of which is the Roman Saturnalia festival (which has its own links with Christmas). These types of inversions served as sort of a release valve for societal tensions, our Halloween celebrations are no different in that respect.

I clambered up the stairs to my apartment. I had only been gone an hour but it felt like I’d traveled back through the centuries. The wise concrete of the sidewalk had given generously of its experience. And I felt as if I understood Rousseau a bit more as a person. Wandering around and day-dreaming sounds like a stupid hobby, but, like Rousseau, I have found that it is beneficial to one’s disposition. And, as Graves and Frazer would surely agree, Halloween is indeed an interesting night to be about.


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