"Up the airy mountain, Down the rushy glen, We daren't go a-hunting For fear of little men."
-William Allingham, The Fairies
Happy Halloween (or Blessed Samhain, for those of you who celebrate) Everyone!!! :-)
I don't know about all of you, but Halloween is my absolute, all-time favorite holiday! There are a lot of reasons for this. First, it's Fall, which is my favorite season. I love, love, love the cool, crisp weather and the changing colors of the trees. I love the stick-to-your-ribs food and sitting around a fire pit with friends enjoying cider and smores. I love the early sunsets and the fact that I can stand outside and actually enjoy them because all the bugs have gone back to Hell where they belong. I even love the rainy days and longer nights. Honestly, I don't think there's anything I don't love about Fall.
Halloween, of course, just epitomizes all that is fabulous about Fall. With Halloween comes good food, good fellowship, and spooky good times! There's candy, hayrides, bonfires, parties, haunted houses, and the sharing of scary stories. In fact, I think it's that last that I might enjoy the most.
I love listening to scary stories and I often wonder what the inspiration for some of them was. Of course, since a lot of the stories I'm thinking about are hundreds, if not thousands, of years old in origin with unknown authors, there's no way to ever find out for certain. But it's fun to speculate.
One story in particularly is something I'd love to know how it got started. It's not necessarily a Halloween story, but I first heard it sitting around a campfire with friends on Halloween, so I associate it with Halloween. There are tons of versions of the story with details changed here or there, but, basically, it goes like this:
"Every night, fairies wander the human realm looking for fun, food, and mischief. If they pass a doorstep where someone has left out a little bread and milk, they'll eat the offerings and pass by without causing harm. They might even leave a blessing on the house or do a little work in exchange for the food. But if they pass a home where no offering is left, they'll cause mischief and do harm to those who dwell within. They have even been known to steal children and leave changelings in their place to punish those who fail to show them the proper respect. So always leave a little bread and milk on your stoop for the fairies that your home might be blessed with good fortune."
This story, in particular, intrigued me because there are people who actually do leave bread and milk on their porch for the "fairies." It's not as common a superstition as it used to be, but I have known people who do this. One woman informed me that it must be true because the bread and milk disappear every night, and who else could be eating them except fairies?
Good question! Who else, indeed? Who do I know who just loves a little treat of bread or milk? Is there anyone, anyone at all, who enjoys bread and milk and who has no problem at all helping themselves to any they might happen upon? Hmmm...let me think.
Yeah. And from the perspective of someone living in a time before refrigeration, canning, plastic containers, and other modern methods for preserving food, it would definitely be a blessing to have someone to help keep the rodents out of the grain stores. Of course, cats aren't the only possibility for who might have been eating the bread and milk. There are plenty of nocturnal animals who are comfortable enough around humans to hang out around our houses and who would be happy to take advantage of any food they didn't have to work for. But, me being me, my mind, of course, turns to cats first. ;-)
So, then I began to speculate exactly how this particular story got started. Again, it's so old I'll never know for sure, so I just made something up. Why not?
Like many stories, my story starts off with a poor couple living in a small cottage. They don't have much, certainly not enough to feed a pet, but the wife loves cats and pines for one of her own. Her husband, however, is unsympathetic, and he has a violent temper. Desperate for the companionship of a friendly kitty, the wife starts leaving a little bit of food outside at night. She hopes that if the stray cats that are around find something to eat on her porch, they'll start spending more time hanging out around her home.
At first, the wife just leaves a little milk out for them. Maybe it's just the leftovers that the cream has been skimmed from. Maybe it's a day or two old and too sour for humans to want to eat. Whatever the reason or excuse, she figures it's so insignificant a "waste" that her husband won't notice the loss.
Her plan works and, after a few weeks, there are several stray cats who are spending time hanging out around her little house. While her husband is away during the day, she pets them and talks to them, and they become her friends. After a few weeks, the wife notices that she isn't losing as much of her stored grain to rodents and so she has more to make bread with. She knows she owes this good fortune to the cats, so she starts sharing a little bread with them at night as well as the milk to "pay" them for their labor.
Unfortunately, one day the husband gets up before the wife and finds the empty plates on the porch before the wife can pick them up. He demands to know why the wife left food out for animals when they have so little for themselves, especially after he had forbidden it. Mindful of his temper and fearing that he might hurt her if she tells the truth, the wife tells him the first story that comes to her mind.
She isn't leaving food out for animals, that would be wasteful as her good husband said. No, she was just paying respect to the passing fairies, and the small folk had blessed their home in payment for her offering. She shows her husband the stored grain and points out that there is more than there would normally be, and tells him that they have the fairies to thank for their good fortune.
Since everyone knows that fairies are real and can either bless or curse humans, as they choose, the husband is satisfied with this explanation. He gives his wife permission to continue. And the wife gets to keep her kitty friends.
Is this story true? Maybe. It's certainly plausible that something like this was the origin of the story. But then it's just as possible that this story has nothing to do with how the superstition got started. I'll leave it to you to decide if I've correctly guessed how the story started...or if all I've done is tell you a fairy tale.
Have a deliciously spooky All Hallows' Eve! :-)