Mark Oxbrow,
Halloween: Pagan
Festival to Trick or Treat

(Strega, 2001)

It's hard not to be just a little excited by Halloween. After all, it's the one day a year that it's perfectly acceptable and encouraged to step outside yourself and adopt a new identity, concealing your features and mannerisms to be someone else for a while. The disguise can be an elaborate, horrific monster or fantastic creature from space, a superhero, a hobo or clown. The motivation can be a party, a prank or a pot full of candy.

The holiday is analyzed in great deal, from its formative years in Scotland (Samhain) through its adoption by the Christian church (All Hallows Eve) to all of its modern incarnations, in Mark Oxbrow's interesting and informative book Halloween: Pagan Festival to Trick or Treat.

Oxbrow debunks many myths about the origins of Halloween and lays substantial groundwork for understanding the melange of pagan and Christian fetes and festivals that evolved into the holiday we know today. For instance, Oxbrow explains why, despite firmly held beliefs to the contrary, Samhaim was a Celtic celebration of life, not death. The day was first earmarked as a commemoration for the dead by 10th-century Christian leaders.

But while ancient Celts did not fear the restless dead on this day, it was a time when the boundaries between worlds grew thin and fey spirits roamed freely. Readers will learn more about ancient beliefs, as well as traditional fire rites, the development of trick-or-treating and links to modern paganism. Oxbrow also takes readers abroad, leaving the holiday's Scottish roots and modern American traditions behind to explore similar holidays in Mexico, Poland, Japan and elsewhere in the world.

The book does wander far afield from its stated purpose at times, and some, more single-minded people might find the many sidetracks into subjects as diverse as Egyptology, divination, witches in the military and Harry Potter confusing or even, at times, tedious. Not because it's a dry subject or dryly written, mind you, but there's a lot of text packed into this book as it is, and sometimes you find yourself wishing Oxbrow would stick more doggedly to the point. And when the subject strays into Scottish witch hunts and plots against the English king -- well, strangely, there are really Halloween connections there.

Actually, there are threads tying pretty much everything in this book together, and many readers will find it fascinating from beginning to end. Certainly there is a wealth of knowledge to be learned for anyone even remotely interested in the Halloween and Samhain season, and someone really passionate about the subject will be in heaven. Oxbrow has done plenty of academic research here, but his text is enlivened by elements of folklore, literature and his own experiences, too. Pop culture has its place, too, from the Great Pumpkin of Peanuts fame to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Bewitched, Charmed and The Blair Witch Project. Particularly fun is the final chapter, in which Oxbrow pokes holes in many of the anti-Halloween propagandists.

The cover may discourage some people -- it smacks more of glossy, new-age showmanship than it does serious research. But anyone interested in either a casual examination of Halloween or an in-depth analysis of its roots and branches will find Oxbrow to be an absorbing read.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 31 October 2002

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