Sunday, November 28, 2010

Nightmare on Main Street

Halloween is one holiday that I firmly advocate we take up with more verve below the Southern Cross. I believe I have been trick-o-treating once in my life, and attended just one Halloween-themed party; never once have we had trick-o-treaters knocking at the door of our house, certainly in the twenty-two years I’ve been in residence. But I was utterly delighted by my Halloween experience this year. I mean, the holiday has
its own double-barrelled verb with an O in the middle, for goodness’ sake. Not to mention the jack-O-lanterns. And all the free “candy.”

For Halloween this year I was on Nantucket, where time came to a standstill at least in the 1950s and quite possibly in the 1850s, when the island’s era of prosperity as a whaling capital came to an end following the destruction of the wharves in the Great Fire of 1849. Nantucket’s original cobbled streets and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century timber homes, the air of sleepiness at the tail-end of the vacation season, and the chilly sea breeze that tumbled the freshly fallen leaves in shades of gold and orange, all made for a picture perfect Halloween setting. It could not have been more appropriate that two of the island’s founding purchasers were named Tristram and Peter Coffin of all things, and their name is to be found on street-signs and public buildings throughout the town – Coffin Street, The Coffin School, The Coffin Inn (special winter rates for vampires no doubt).

What with the recorded screams and wails emanating from a shop-front on Main Street and the whistling (yes, whistling) wind, it was not difficult to imagine that the ghosts of victims of the Great Fire or the drowned sailors of the whale-ship Essex (the inspiration for Moby Dick) were wandering the laneways after dark (the atmosphere was so spooky that I was quite genuinely, although in my defence, momentarily, terrified when a human-sized rabbit abruptly appeared from behind the bookstore, but my particular fear of men in rabbit costumes is another story for another day).

As a historical side-note, when the survivors of the Essex wreck ran out of food they, naturally, turned to consuming those who had already died. When this source too ran out, they drew straws to decide which of them should be the first to be slaughtered and eaten. The name of the seventeen-year-old sailor who drew the short straw? Owen Coffin.

But what made Halloween really special was the spirit with which the locals approached the holiday. Shops and homes were decorated lavishly with outsized cotton bud cobwebs, enormous spiders, jack-o-lanterns, skeletons, and glowing orange fairy lights. In cafes, we were served by waiters decked out as Willy Wonker, chocolate bars and lobsters (a token lobster, real or imitation, being compulsory at all New England events). As 4.30 approached, there was a growing tension on Main Street. The street had been quiet all day, a few leftover vacationers wandering the shops that remained open, admiring the yachts, huddling in waterside pubs and cafes. Local churchgoers had already made their way home, leaving the centre of town bereft. But now, as the gloaming began to fall, strange figures were materialising, slowly at first, then in growing numbers, trickling in from all corners of the island. Ghostly figures, headless and featureless figures, soldiers, sailors, and witchy figures, they wafted in towards us. Most of them were three feet high. Many of them were dogs.

The trick-o-treaters paraded up and down Main Street in their costumes, delving their hands into the bowls and barrels and cauldrons of sweets proffered by the local shopkeepers, and their performance culminated in a parade up the middle of the street. Never have I seen so many of the world’s cutest children and dogs congregated in one such miraculous and truly beautiful place. Halloween: get on it.
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