We Wish You a Merry Samhain
My mother, Nurse Vivian, called herself an Irish (as opposed to Roman) Catholic. She taught me that Halloween came from All Hallow’s Eve, or the evening before the Feast of All Saints.
It wasn’t until Tim became a Wiccan priestess that I learned of the holiday’s true Celtic roots. On the Emerald Isle, Samhain (pronounced Sow-in) marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. It literally meant “summer’s end.” The Irish celebrated four seasonal festivals (the others: Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasadh).
This particular orange-letter day was celebrated halfway between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice. To appease the pixies, or Aos Si, the pagans threw feasts and dressed in disguise. It became a tradition to go door-to-door reciting verses in exchange for nuts and apples.
Tim told me that on this one night, the spirits traveled through the Sidhe, or fairy mounds, to visit us. At each of Tim’s Samhain liturgies, therefore, we celebrated the day of the dead.
Tim has been a ghost now for 10 years. Last Halloween, we planted his ashes (after they mysteriously appeared) under a Japanese maple sapling in the yard. When the wind murmurs through the leaves, we whisper back the ritual words he taught me: “They are dead, so we must live!”
But thoughts of Nurse Vivian and Halloween bring up one of the top 10 embarrassing moments of my childhood: the last time I dressed up. There was a big party at the German clubhouse in Yaphank, N.Y. (this was decades before 23andMe taught me that we had no German blood), set for the last Saturday in October, and Nurse Vivian sewed costumes from Labor Day until the day before the party.
She and Pop dressed as hobos, but for me she made an outfit that was half tuxedo and half evening gown. Black satin on the left and pink chiffon with a spaghetti strap on the right. Mind you, this was her idea, not mine, and I didn’t realize that this was three months after Stonewall.
Wearing half a wig and half a mustache, I semi-sashayed, semi-strutted into the party, looked around and saw 80 people dressed in lederhosen and dirndls. This was not a Halloween ball; this was Oktoberfest. A pig had been slaughtered and I was the only demi-drag queen in the room. No one quite knew who could polka with me.
Two years ago, Aidan asked for a werewolf outfit, and I had to explain to him that there are different kinds of Halloween families. Some go for horror, with lots of fangs and fake blood. Some go for camp, with plastic birds and Tippi Hedren hats. But the Fisher-Paulsons go for superhero shtick. We’ve done Iron Man and the Hulk, the Justice League, Woody and Buzz Lightyear, the Superman family and the Captain America family.
For a decade, we’ve walked the neighborhood and, while the boys trick-or-treated with Maya (the girl next door), Brian and I visited with our neighbors. Most years Aunt JJ invited us in for a glass of wine and the World Series (in even years), or Tita Nona for pancit and show tunes around her piano.
But this year, at 13, Zane hemmed and hawed about the upcoming holiday, telling me, “I don’t even like candy, and one of the girls said that Halloween was just for kids.”
I told Zane about that Oktoberfest in 1969, and I told him, “I didn’t wear a costume again until I dated this guy from New Jersey in the early ’80s. He threw a party and bought me a Robin, the Boy Wonder, costume.
“And even though I got my fair share of strange looks driving through the Lincoln Tunnel in a yellow cape and green Speedos, I had a great time. I learned this: If you’re laughing with your friends, they can’t really laugh at you.”
He nodded. “OK, Dad, one last time. But I think we’re running out of Avengers.”
Little boys grow up. They stop putting teeth under their pillows. They stop leaving carrots out for reindeer. There’s a point in every boy’s life when he is too old (or too young) to act foolish.
To misquote the New York Sun: Yes, Zane, there is a Great Pumpkin. He exists as certainly as fun and laughter exist. Not believe in the Great Pumpkin? You might as well not believe in fairies.
So if you live in the outer, outer, outer, outer Excelsior, and you hear Ant Man and the Black Panther knocking on your door, please be generous. You never know when it’s a boy’s last trick-or-treat.
Previously published in the San Francisco Chronicle.