Poet in the City Producer and volunteer Arden Fitzroy reflects on the darkening of days and Halloween traditions, as we approach the year's end.
Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
- Edgar Allen Poe

There is a glee most ghoulish in putting together a Halloween costume that will only ever be seen on a Zoom call. There are dimensions of theatricality that don’t exist in a physical space, something about that rectangle that can stir the imagination. There is the moment of the reveal when you switch on your camera. Will something unexpected appear in your background? Have you frozen because of your internet connection, or because you have entered an uncanny moment of grainy stillness? Maybe you have surprises waiting, because fellow party-goers can’t see the notes, props, and makeup neatly waiting by your device.

As we march into the core period of winter feasts in the northern hemisphere, I’d like to reflect on Halloween. Now, I’ve been going on a lot of long walks. Since October, my observations on these walks have featured an increasing amount of seasonal outdoor home decoration, much to my delight. People must have found more time for it, or at least made more time. Halloween decor stayed up, and by December skeletons became reindeer, and pumpkins turned into sleighs, as if by some spooky Fairy Godmother. As gaudy and questionable as some of them may be, there’s something heart-warming about the thought that in practice, these decorations are mostly for the benefit of strangers passing by in the ever-rising dark.

Like everything, Halloween has its naysayers. Usually the words ‘American import’ are involved, often accompanied by a look of arch disdain. Certainly, the sweets and costume parties in the form familiar to us might be a recent addition—and really, it saddens me that there are genuinely people out there with an unmitigated hatred of sweets and costume parties—but it is generally held that Halloween coincides with festivals much older than that. There’s a lot of debate around the specifics, but Samhain is probably the most prominent example. In any case, it traditionally marks the end of the harvest, and the beginning of winter. That still holds, climate change notwithstanding. It kicks off a timeline of winter preparation that culminates in the solstice and its associated festivals, which in many northern hemisphere cultures has meant feasting and celebration. Commercialisation has turned the various events between October and December into profitably distinct entities, but they have originally represented more of an itinerary towards winter. It’s all one big spooky season. Nightmare Before Christmas, anyone?

In the days before indoor plumbing, heating and Wi-Fi, when civilisations depended on the elements, and the yield of the harvest determined whether they could feed their livestock and therefore children, a harsh winter meant death. Very simple. Such was the way of things for the vast majority of human history. This is still the case for many, but some of us are fortunate to be insulated from this fact today. The celebration of the solstice—or Christmas, or Yule, or Saturnalia—was the last hurrah for many, an opportunity to gather for what could possibly be the last time. Because this is the kind of creature we are and have always been, since a startled primate managed to get a fire going: faced by a looming existential threat, what do we do? We make direct eye contact with it, get curious, and poke it with a stick. We build the tools to adapt, we deck it with cheap lights, we put a roast on, and we share the joy with our loved ones. We remember those who can no longer join us. Whatever lies ahead, we celebrate life and connection.

I’m not going to talk about 2020—you just had to be there, darling. But for whatever reason, this resonated with me this year, of all years. I think about this during Poet in the City’s Halloween Poetry Party, as I spend time with friends old and new, people I’ve only ever met online, and people I knew in the Before Times who I grew closer to while we were all in our separate homes. What an opportunity to share and partake in the delight of spooky season, as we swap scary stories, and surprise each other with unexpected tales from the poetical crypt. Horror, Halloween and poetry, all the good things in a single virtual room. Halloween gatherings have always been my favourite soirées of the year, and no upstart pandemic will prise them from my freezing cold, fabulously soft hands.

All this to say:

Damn it all, we survived. Let’s party.