Hallowe’en is a cross-quarter day, that is it falls midway between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice. This is the northern hemispherical view of things, it’s the opposite Down Under, they are preparing for summer now and take their Christmas in swim togs. But here it is distinctly fall and the cold of winter greets us each morning. I love the winter, you can always bundle up against the wind and frost, you can barely escape the solar onslaught and the stifling air of the summer. Wedged as we are into a slice of the earth that’s not high enough to be alpine nor dry enough to be desert we’ve a unique climate; and winter, though brisk, is mild compared to Wyoming or North Dakota. I like to ski and mostly you have to drive to snow, it falls occasionally in town and a handful of times might it require shoveling.
We like to say that the Winter Solstice is the first day of that season but as you go further and further north (we are at 42 degrees) that day feels more like mid-winter. In fact the early Celts and Britons reckoned the start of the dark season from this time, the solstice told them the sun would start moving back north and the days would lengthen. The Feast of St. Brigid on the first of February, corresponding to Imbolc and Groundhog Day, is the next cross-quarter day after that. There are legends that Brigid could turn water to beer and that is truly an outstanding personal quality, we need more saints like that.
After the Vernal Equinox comes May Day or Beltane marking the start of summer. Thus the Summer Solstice becomes mid-summer. This is logical as the sun reaches its peak on its path across the sky and moves southward from that point. The final cross-quarter day happens on the first of August and acknowledges harvest time. It’s Lammas Day (Anglo-Saxon) or Lughnasa (Gaelic) to the old-timers. It’s halfway to the equinox by then and we are back where we started.
There was a time when the phase of the moon was known to every person as a matter of daily existence. Artificial lighting took care of that, and with our automobiles and airplanes we can carry that light around with us wherever we go. The Industrial Revolution did the rest, the calendar is a mere convenience now and is not wedded to our bones like it once was. So few of us need to farm that we can run our lives independent of the sunrises, sunsets, and seasons.
But we kept the lore. We still read our horoscopes and celebrate our holidays. I don’t know what to make of Hallowe’en, it seems to be a much bigger deal than it was when I was a kid. (God forbid I become one of those old cranks who whines about how things were better when he was little; stop me if I ever get there.) But everything seems that way now, probably because there are a hell of a lot more of us—about 100 million more since I left high school, 18 million in California alone! I remember dressing up and trick-or-treating as a kid, it was fun. I remember one year when the Zodiac killer was on the loose, I think it was 1969, the Chief of Police asked all the moms to keep their kids in for Hallowe’en. The Zodiac’s first victims were on Lake Herman Road, just within the city limits of Benicia where I grew up, and his next victims were in Vallejo at Blue Rock Springs Park where I had been many times. That case was never solved.
I’ll admit I’m not much for costuming and never liked having to dress up for Hallowe’en at work. I suppose it was because I already had on a costume, or rather a uniform, and would never dress for life outside of work in work garb. And going out in public requires dressing up as well. All these clothes we wear are already costumes, we just don’t think it so. Our corporate retail masters and their handmaidens, the TV advert people, have trained us to see certain things as clothing and other things as costumes.
The days continue to shorten and if you want to believe we have already started winter then be my guest, you’ve got a cultural precedent to follow on this cross-quarter day. The fall here has been spectacular and unusually long, I’ll hate to see it go despite my enthusiasm for winter. The shoulder seasons are never long enough, often the autumn that’s slipped in after the hot summer seems to last mere days and not weeks. As the sun marches away make a point to note its position on the horizon at rise or set. Keep an eye on that spot. Or note its place in the sky at noon and the length of the shadows. Check again around Thanksgiving, and Christmas, and by New Year’s Day you’ll be seeing it come back around. The ancients had to do these things to survive, but we can do it just to enjoy the celestial show.