Weirdly appropriate for 2020

Tonight there will be a blue moon. The last time a blue moon appeared coast to coast on Halloween was 1944. Just in case you didn’t know, a Blue Moon is the second full moon to appear in the same month. It rarely happens, which is why we say that a rare event only occurs once in a Blue Moon. And it’s why Frank Sinatra celebrates the sudden appearance of a true love in this song.

Childhood learning · Folklore · Holidays

“Trick or Treat, Smell My Feet, Give Me Something Good to Eat”

Halloween will be different this year. Normally this children’s holiday is an occasion not only for a lot of fun, but an opportunity for kids to learn how to interact with friendly adults whom they do not know. They get practice in having a grown-up conversation because they have something to talk about (their costume) and conversational partners who are truly interested in what they have to say. They learn with the help of a parent or concerned adult how to accept a gift with gratitude (“don’t forget to say thank you”). But this year, many people will just leave a bucket of candy on the doorstep so the children can help themselves. This is so sad. Let’s hope that next year we are no longer afraid to open our doors to the children.


From One Potato, Two Potato: The Folklore of American Children by Herb and me—here’s our take on Halloween:

“Early in the last century, Halloweeners were mainly boys who disguised themselves to conceal their identities while they played tricks on adults, removing from a house, for instance, the front-porch steps, a length of guttering, or the screen or storm doors—all in near silence.

“But most contemporary Halloweeners are not interested in tricks of any kind. They want loot. They show up at the houses of strangers dressed in costumes meant not to disguise but to be admired.

“They come to beg—well, actually to collect—since they believe they have a right to what the householder gives them. In pagan times, people offered food to the dead on Halloween. Later, people doled out soul cakes to anyone who came by, but mainly to the poor. Today, we give candy to the well fed, who arrive with shopping bags. These bagmen are often accompanied by their parents, who protect them from marauders who might make off with the loot.

“A begging holiday seems somehow appropriate for big cities. It gives children license to approach strangers and reminds  people that they live in a neighborhood, even if then don’t spend much time there.

“A shadow of the old trickster’s Halloween remains alive today in the ritual demand, ‘Trick or treat.’ But many children don’t even understand what they are threatening. They think the phrase means ‘Trick for treat,’ and that if asked, they must do a jig or something else to pay for their candy. Usually they aren’t asked. They show off their costumes, collect their loot, and march off to the next house, occasionally punctuating the night with a Halloween rhyme:

Trick or treat, Smell my feet, Give me something good to eat.

For scary stuff from One Potato, Two Potato, click here

mourning · Poetry

The Last Word on Mourning

Spring and Fall: To a Young Child

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.


Alas, Poor Yorick

I recently watched a Zoom presentation of 19th century mourning customs. Since I was an English teacher for a good part of my former life, I suppose it is not surprising that I began to think about how death and mourning are presented in literature. 

The first thing that came to my mind was Hamlet’s musing on the skull of Yorick, perhaps the most often quoted passage from Shakespeare’s works. I had the great privilege of teaching Hamlet to high school seniors for many years—five classes a day. I read the play out loud, explained the unfamiliar language and discussed the play with my students. Before I retired I practically had the play memorized—all parts. But it never got old because Hamlet is one of the great works of English literature, maybe as Kenneth Brannagh has suggested, the greatest work of art across all disciplines.

Setting the Scene

Act I, Scene v–Hamlet and his friend Horatio are walking through the cemetery when they come upon a gravedigger busy digging a fresh grave. They engage in idle conversation. Hamlet asks how long a corpse will last before it rots. The gravedigger nonchalantly holds up a skull he has recently unearthed. “Here’s a skull now. This skull has lain in the earth three and twenty years.” Hamlet asks whose it was. “This sir was Yorick’s skull, the King’s jester.”

David Tennant in the title role. Hamlet, Act V, Scene 1

The mood suddenly becomes serious as Hamlet reaches for the skull and holds it in his hands. 

Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio; a fellow 

of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath

borne me on his back a thousand times, and now, how

abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at

it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know 

not how oft. Where be your jibes now? Your

gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment

that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one

now, to mock your own grinning? Quite chap-fallen.

Now get thee to my lady’s chamber and tell her, let

Her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must

come; make her laugh at that. Prithee, Horatio, tell

me one thing.

HORATIO: What’s that, my lord?

HAMLET: Dost thou think Alexander look o’ this fashion 

In the earth?

HORATIO; E’n so.

HAMLET: And smelt so? Pah!

HORATIO; E’en so, my lord.

HAMLET: To what base uses we may return, Horatio! 

Do high school seniors still study Hamlet?

Probably not. Too many triggers. But come to think of it, isn’t all great literature saturated with triggers that encourage us to think deeply about the disturbing aspects of life—like the inevitability of death? 

Which raises the question: What is the purpose of education?

Andre Tchaikowsky, brilliant composer and pianist (not to be confused with the famous Russian symphonic composer) died in 1982, having bequeathed his skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company. The video above featuring David Tennant in the title role of the RSC production probably features Andre Tchaikowsky (his skull, that is) in the role of Yorick.

Architecture · Historic House Museums · Merchant's House · Museums

New York City’s Most Haunted House

Merchant’s House Museum, 29 East Fourth Street, New York City

The Merchant’s House Museum, where I worked for almost 20 years, has a reputation for being the most haunted house in New York City. There are several things about this historic house museum that distinguish it from other historic houses that encourage the ghosts to make their presence known.

First of all, only one family lived there for almost 100 years. The baby born in the house in 1840 died in an upstairs bedroom in 1933. Thus there is no confusion caused by a lot of unrelated departed individuals vying for attention.

And this is key—the house is still furnished with their furniture and decorative objects. Their personal possessions are still there, including their clothing. Even the textiles—the draperies, the upholstery, the carpet, are exact reproductions of what was there at mid nineteenth century. 

And sometimes strange things happen

Visitors and staff have over the years reported inexplicable events. Apparitions in 19th century costume and hair styles appear suddenly. Objects are moved from their accustomed places without the intervention of a living person. Footsteps are heard on the stairs by an office worker working late, although no one else is in the house.

However, I am a ghost skeptic

I am not too vocal about my misgivings because I realize that many people find it entertaining and exciting to think that the house is haunted and I don’t want to spoil the fun. It’s not that I don’t believe these strange events have happened; I just believe there is an alternative explanation.

 When visitors ask if there are ghosts

My standard reply when I used to give tours was “Of course, that is the whole point.” The Merchant’s House offers guided tours, but visitors are also free to explore the house on their own for as long as they like with a self-guided tour book. It is then, in my opinion, that the real ghosts are likely to emerge. They are not scary; they are not even particularly mysterious. But if you just stand quietly and stare at their things, you will feel their presence beside you.

Here is the coal grate they stood before to warm themselves.

Here are the chairs they sat in.

 Here is the table they sat around.

And as you climb the very stairway they climbed to make their way to bed, with your hand touching the stair rail their hands touched, one of them leads the way.

Here are the beds where they rested—and sometimes died.

 Here is the window they looked out of.

Here are the mirrors that reflected their faces.

Of course you can never completely pierce the veil, but you will never come closer to knowing what life was like in the nineteenth century than you do at the Merchant’s House, and that is because, as they say, it is the most haunted house in New York City.

Unfortunately, this year because of COVID-19. the Merchant’s House has had to cancel their in-person ghost events and the popular candlelit ghost tours.  But if you like to ruminate about ghostly happenings, go here and you will find several virtual events you might be interested in, including a summary of the paranormal studies of the House that are now taking place.