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Figure courtesy Artforms Santa Cruz

Skeleton Cruising: Mexico's Day of the Dead isn't about trick or treating but about honoring the dead.

Dead Mother Dancing

Guy Fawkes Night, Halloween and El Dia de los Muertos have different relationships with Death

By Sarah Phelan

I FIRST celebrated Halloween when I was 35 years old. My belated introduction to this festival had a simple, if historically convoluted, explanation: I grew up in England, where Halloween has long been suppressed because of its pagan roots. In its place we have Guy Fawkes Night, which, instead of honoring dead people, celebrates the death of one man: a 17th-century radical named Guy Fawkes.

Apprehended in the cellars of London's Parliament building, surrounded by 36 barrels of gunpowder, Guy Fawkes was planning to blow up the Protestant king, church and government on Nov. 5, 1605, the heavily attended opening day of Parliament.

What drove him to formulate such an explosive plan? State-mandated religious intolerance. As a Catholic, Fawkes faced harsh fines, and possibly death, if caught practicing his faith.

Burning Man

HAD FAWKES succeeded with his Gunpowder Plot, he would have caused a huge and symbolic loss of life, the 17th-century equivalent of Sept 11, 2001. Whether his action would have led to greater religious freedom we'll never know, because someone tipped off the king, and Fawkes was caught with matches and kindling in hand. After extensive torture, he was hung, drawn and quartered, then burned publicly. And lest anyone forget the penalty for treason, Nov. 5 was declared a holiday on which his effigy was ritualistically burnt.

For weeks in advance of Guy Fawkes Night, my friends and I would push a straw-stuffed "Guy" around town in a stroller, singing, "Please to remember the fifth of November, gunpowder treason and plot."

As we begged "a penny for the Guy" with which to buy fireworks, we were unaware that Guy Fawkes Night was born of patriotic propaganda. As we set off our fireworks--a cynical tip of the hat to the foiled Gunpowder Plot, perhaps--and burned our Guys atop hillside bonfires--a throwback to the ancient practices of the Druids--we little realized that this ritualistic burning had helped assure the survival of Halloween.

Though Celtic traditions have faded across most of Europe, Irish Catholics--in religious and nationalistic reaction to Guy Fawkes Day--have clung to their Celtic traditions. And when thousands of them emigrated to the United States in the wake of the 1845 potato famine, they brought Halloween with them, substituting their traditional turnip-faced "Punkies" with pumpkin-headed jack-o'-lanterns.

Candy Man

AND THAT'S HOW I discovered Halloween when I emigrated to California in my 30s. I'll admit that at first, beyond the toothy jack-o'-lanterns, the evening was a sugar-induced letdown compared to the savage wildness of Nov. 5. And how could anyone be so unashamedly greedy as to go trick or treating with a garbage bag? But that was before I went out on the town with Tom's dead mother.

Recently fired and consequently short on cash, Tom was in possession of two tickets to a Halloween ball, which he wasn't going to attend for fear of bumping into his ex-boss. But when he discovered I'd never dressed up on Halloween before--a discovery he made on the afternoon of Halloween--he insisted we go, claiming nothing would please him more than to haunt his former employer.

In search of costumes, we hit the nearest thrift store, where Tom miraculously uncovered a rack of frothy prom dresses. There was one catch. They were all size 44D. Holding up a chartreuse and royal-blue number, Tom suggested I could pad myself out and go as a fat lady. But I'd just discovered a plastic bandoleer, rifle and a cool pair of camouflage pants.

"You be the fat lady, I'll be a soldier," I said.

Since Tom had already carved out a jack-o'-lanterns and wanted to distribute candy to the neighborhood kids, we went to his house to prepare ourselves. And when the first group of trick or treaters showed up, Tom, who had just put on his prom dress, opened the door, chest hair spilling from his satiny décolletage.

"You are the ugliest woman I've ever seen" screamed a candy-grabbing preschooler, a judgment that threw Tom into the kind of paroxysms of self-doubt familiar to all women on the eve of their first prom.

"Let's try softening the effect," I suggested, but rouge and eye shadow only gave Tom a coarse harsh edge.

"I really do make an ugly woman," he admitted, surveying himself in the mirror in that self-hating manner so many women employ daily.

"No," I lied. "You just need accessories."

With his size-13 feet, Tom had to settle for white sneakers, which gave him a clownish look. Maybe a shawl to tone down the body hair, I was thinking, as Tom pulled a wooden box from a desk drawer. Inside, I saw some amber necklaces and an emerald brooch.

"They were my mother's," said Tom, holding a necklace to the light. "I was 7, when they took her to the hospital with breast cancer. I never saw her alive again."

I lifted the necklace over Tom's head.

"It really bring out your coloring," I said, truthfully.

"I have my mother's looks" replied Tom, teary-eyed.

"Then why don't you go as your mother?" I said.

Remembrance of People Past: 'If you personify death by showing it doing something your loved one liked to do, then maybe it's easier and less scarier to face Death yourself.'

Day of the Dead

TOM LOOKED thoughtful. "You know, the Mexican Day of the Dead isn't about trick or treating, at all, but about honoring the dead," he said.

"And how do you do that?" I asked.

"By taking Death by the hand and teasing it." Tom pointed at a grinning skeleton figurine that was perched on his window playing an accordion.

"That's to remind me of my friend Carmen, who loved to play the accordion and died of AIDS," Tom told me, picking up the figurine and moving it about as if it were making music. "If you personify Death by showing it doing something your loved one liked to do, then maybe it's easier and less scarier to face Death yourself."

"And what did your mother like to do?" I asked.

"My mother," said Tom with a smile, "loved to party."

And so it was that Tom went to the ball as his mother, while I went as a soldier in honor of my father, who fought in World War II. Things did get tense for a moment when Tom came face to face with his ex-boss, who was dressed as a monk.

But then Tom, who grew up on Maui and has never lost his Aloha touch, said, "Evening, bro; I come in peace," and everything was fine.

As we danced that evening, I could see Tom enjoying swishing about his satiny skirts, and I realized that Halloween is the one day of the year when men can wear women's clothing without being deemed deviant.

I mean, Laura Bush in pants is not shocking.. But people would much rather hear about Bill Clinton getting in Monica's knickers than wearing them. As for Dubya in a dress? That's probably a treasonable thought by now. But can we expect men to understand us more, if they can't walk a mile in our high heels once in a while?

I once asked a s/heman who'd just participated in his-her first beauty show how it felt to be objectified. "Absolutely marvelous," she said, fluttering mascara-laden eyelashes.

And tonight I could see Tom enjoying being the belle of the ball. "I had no idea how good it feels to swish your dress," he said, twirling his frock, as we danced the Monster Mash.

Later that night, as we were sipping on a greenish concoction called the Ghoul's Revenge, Tom began to cry. "It was so bad never being able to say good-bye to her," he confessed. "For the longest time I was afraid I'd forget who she was, but after tonight, I'll always remember."

That. of course, was several years ago, before the horror of Sept 11. and anthrax and bombs being dropped in Afghanistan brought Death closer to us all.

So, this year think about your dead and what they loved to do and why. Try walking in the shoes of your long lost mother, your alcoholic father, the brother you lost when you were four. And try walking in the boots of a dead firefighter, soldier, refugee or militant for just one night. Demonizing is as easy as burning Guy Fawkes. Learning about our friends and enemies, dead or alive, is harder, but it may be our best chance of achieving world peace.

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From the October 31-November 7, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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