Holiday crystal ball

Posted on October 22, 2010. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

It’s enchantingly appropriate that Halloween is returning to its divination roots.

In ages past, young girls would play augury games with apples and nuts, the harvest bounty of summer’s end, signified by All Hallow’s Eve, to gain insight as to their future matrimony.

One such ritual involved placing hazelnuts along the fire grate, each one given the name of a potential husband. The accompanying chant was “If you love me pop and fly; if you hate me burn and die.”

Another method of Halloween husband divining involved a girl peeling an apple in one long strip and then flinging the unbroken paring over her shoulder. The initial it formed on the floor signified a sweetheart’s true love.

In its contemporary application, money has supplanted love as the object of Halloween divination. Like a squinting gypsy before a crystal ball, analysts now gaze at the commerce of Halloween in hopes of foretelling the future of the Christmas holiday retail activity.

The tea leaves watched most carefully are consumer spending on costumes, candy and decorations, which the National Retail Federation has predicted will rise 22 percent over last year, to a frightful $5.8 billion.

A record-high four in 10 Americans will don a Halloween costume this year, up 33 percent from last year, and one in three is planning on either holding or attending a party. In what could be a subliminal nod to the iconic black cats of the holiday, 11 percent of consumers will dress up a pet.

Yard or house decorations for Halloween remain popular, second only to Christmas, with 50 percent of people decking their halls with ghosts, witches, goblins and such. Three out of four Americans say they will be handing out candy as trick-or-treaters go door to door.

Many retailers are viewing Halloween, which has been termed by some in the trade as “the other Christmas,” as a tarot card indicating a similar enthusiastic renewal over the impending November and December shopping season.

Although official forecasts for Christmas sales haven’t been published yet, there are signs of optimism brewing among retailers. “Toys R Us” has announced the addition of 45,000 temporary employees in anticipation of holiday crowds and also will open 600 seasonal “pop-up” stores this year. Macy’s, the nation’s second largest department store chain, is hiring 65,000 seasonal workers to help boost sales.

Even beleaguered Sears is set to launch 85 new toy shops in existing stores as part of its Christmas strategy.

For me, Halloween’s usefulness in foreshadowing the fortunes of merchants during the upcoming holidays is just another reason to like this American autumnal observance, which abounds in lore as well as confectionery loot.

It’s a minor parenting milestone when the first Halloween arrives and the youngest child is too old for trick or-treating (especially since I was always counted among the 90 percent of parents who poach their children’s goody bags).

One of the typically unsung treasures of the Halloween season is the literary contribution represented by classic horror tales. In the vision numbing age of HD violence and video game carnage, devices like the Kindle and other reader aids, as well as the proliferation of audio books available through iPods and smartphone apps, can introduce people to some extremely well crafted spooky stories.

I attended a local theater production of “Frankenstein” earlier this week that was faithful to Mary Shelley’s original tale. The kids in the audience were likely disappointed to discover no dazzling special effects or gore in the production, but they were treated to some fine character performances utilizing exceptional dialogue, which vividly explored the darkest aspects of man aspiring to become creator and then withering under its burden.

In fact, the really riveting parts of the horror classics result from the authors’ understanding that what the mind envisions can be far scarier than what the eye actually sees.

There was a list somewhere of the 50 best horror movies of all time. My advice is to skip that and tap into an author like Shelley, Bram Stoker (“Dracula”), Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft or Robert Louis Stevenson. Most of their works are in the public domain, meaning bound volumes are inexpensive and audio books can be listened to for free.

If you can only choose one, pick “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving, a true classic that bears little resemblance to the grotesque manifestations that dominate television and movie screens (the lone exception being the old Disney animated cartoon featuring Bing Crosby’s beguiling voice as narrator).

It’s the perfect Halloween short story—long on great characters and wonderful writing.

UPDATE

In researching last week’s column about Dylan Galloway, the senior from Manila born with cerebral palsy who scored a touchdown in his wheelchair thanks to a grand gesture from the Rivercrest Colts defense, I was the 32,847th viewer of the play on YouTube.

As of Thursday afternoon, the video had been viewed 359,788 times.

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