Halloween was brought to the New World by my ancestors, refugees from the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1849. My amateurish genealogical sleuthing has churned up relatives in the Irish diaspora of rural Kentucky. Burkes, Flynns and Kilroys first appear during the Famine years. Place of birth on their official census records simply say: Ireland. Lineage dead ends there since the British, who ruled Ireland at the time, destroyed native records. Of eight million people, one million died and 2.1 million poverty-stricken souls emigrated during the four years of the Famine.
In 1844, English politician Benjamin Disraeli explained the “Irish problem”: “a starving population, an absentee aristocracy, an alien-established Protestant church, and in addition, the weakest executive in the world.”
England left the Irish to die.
No wonder the Irish brought their dead ancestors, their heritage, their superstitions to the United States. When the harvest season ended on the night of October 31, Irish immigrants welcomed the spirits to walk among them. It was a celebration, a comfortable reunion between the world of the living and the familiarity of their dead. Little Patricks and Deirdres traipsed door-to-door on that one hallowed night seeking food for the incoming family spirits.
In short order Halloween in America became scary. Demons and witches took over, leaving me with nightmares, still. I cannot, will not watch fright movies. I get the heebie jeebies just looking at trailers for the entire Halloween franchise with Jamie Lee Curtis (though I love her).
The only reason I ever watched the movie, The Exorcist, is that the writer knew my parents and named the demon-possessed girl, Regan, after me. It chills me now even writing about her.
I’ve never been visited from beyond-the-veil by the devil, dead relatives or friends. Poets say spirit ancestors are flying around in the bodies of birds, particularly cardinals. Ethnologists have discovered that every culture honors spirits. From Christian angels to Buddhist arhats, depictions of creatures trapped between the living and the dead grace every ancient wall.
New research suggests people who experience the presence of ethereal beings, immerse themselves in practices that make the brain more porous, more receptive. I do that. I call it meditation. I don’t have the same experiences as indigenous peoples, but my twenty-minute practice of imagining my thoughts passing by on clouds, brings one nanosecond of pure joy. I choose to call this God, bypassing all the intermediaries.
Author and mystical scholar Rev. Dr. Barbara Holmes had a visit from a dead aunt as a child. She shared the experience with the multiple generations of relatives sitting on the porch of their Gullah home in South Carolina. “Let us know if she comes to you again,” said one of the aunts. Their Africana heritage incudes a shared belief that the dead come back and talk to you.
My Irish-American parents buried their heirloom traditions, including the dead visiting the living, in order to assimilate into conventional white America. Halloween was a peasant holiday to be avoided. As was St.Patrick’s Day.
Yes, the notion of the presence of the supernatural still scares me.
But I do love birds.