The eerie feel of autumn swoops in on the wings of birds and insects as they fly south for the winter on nature’s highways. Seasonal decorations grace the shelves of stores all around America, and the excited chatter of children turn from the latest toys to this year’s costumes. When the leaves fall and the winds turn cold, All Hallows’ Eve is near.
In the tiny community in which I’d spent most of my life, this year would be a little different. This year, some dear friends had banded together to make it a truly memorable Halloween.
I was, maybe, eleven years old that year, my sister only a year older. Nothing seemed different to my eyes as we continued down the gravel driveway and past the small single-wide trailer that kept watch over the land. We bumped our way up and down several hills, finally pulling to a stop next to a multitude of cars covering the green grass. My sister and I scrambled out of the car, running to greet our friends with hugs and smiles.
The minutes ticked by slowly as we awaited dusk. Finally, in the complete darkness, we barely noticed as adults disappeared into the woods with bags, tiki torches, lanterns, and various other items. We bounced on our toes as we listened to Vicki, one-half of the couple who owned and cared for the land, speak, “We will be walking the trail, starting here, and ending down at the stage. Once we enter, you need to stay on the trail, but watch your step. Make sure you stay with the group and do not wander off into the woods. I know some of you,” she looked pointedly in the direction of her son, my sister, and me, “have spent a great deal of time in here, but everything looks different at night. Especially,” her voice dropped low, taking on a mysterious tone, “when we are so very close to All Hallows’ Eve.”
Her husband moved to stand by her, whispering, “We’re nearly ready,” before moving off into the shadows.
She continued, her voice hushed, “You must watch carefully, but you must also listen. The old traditions of our ancestors are alive in the forest tonight, and they wish to be heard. Walk carefully and quietly, and you may witness them for yourselves.” She paused, letting her words sink in, the tension building in the air, “Shall we begin?”
Finally. Finally, we were off, passing by a double circle of stones, and into the trees. There were excited gasps as we dove out of the light of the stars and into the woods. The entire trail was lined with flickering tiki torches, their waving lights sending the shadows jumping and swaying through the trees. As we carefully picked our way down the first hill and into a clearing, also encircled with torches, two figures appeared in front of us. On their heads were crowns, one of oak leaves and the other of holly.
“I am the Oak King. With me, I bring the warmth of spring,” one figure said.
“I am the Holly King. With me, I bring the cool breath of winter after summer’s harsh days,” the other said, stepping forward proudly.
I watched with wide eyes as the two kings argued. “Your time has ended, Oak King. It is time for your great slumber and time for my reign to begin.”
“I will not go willingly, Holly King. You must earn your place on the throne.”
“So be it. Draw your sword.”
A startled gasp answered the whisper of metal as two swords slid from their scabbards. Both kings silently circled each other, moving closer and closer. I jumped as the weapons clashed, the ring of metal harsh on my ears. The two swords seemed to blaze in the darkness, flicking in and out of the lights in the clearing. At some point, the adults had switched off their flashlights, and not a sound could be heard from the enraptured children. One moment the swords were locked together, and the next, the fight was over.
“Your time has ended. Do you yield?” the Holly King asked, his sword unwaveringly pointed at the Oak King’s throat.
“I yield. You have bested me once more, Holly King.” His voice sounded tired, as though he was only a few moments from sleep.
Vicki stepped back into the light, holding a lantern, “You have witnessed the fight between the Holly King and the Oak King. As it happens every year at this time, the Holly King has won and winter will come. But do not fret, for near winter’s end, the Oak King will rise from his slumber to retake his throne, and spring shall come once more.” She turned, beckoning for us to follow her.
The children looked all around but whispered about the fight we had just witnessed. I have no idea how long we picked our way through the darkness, but soon, we began hearing other voices and ghostly noises. Vicki spun, her eyes wide with fear as she darted to a fallen tree nearby. “Quickly, children, you must all put on these masks; the ancestral spirits have awakened.”
“The- the what?” one fearful voice spoke up.
“The spirits of our ancestors. When All Hallows’ Eve comes, the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead is thin, and, sometimes, spirits slip through. This is why we wear masks, so those very spirits do not find us and decide to stay.” The next few minutes were a blur as the adults rushed to help the children with their masks.
She settled her own mask on her face, a white one, and held her lantern aloft once more. “Let us continue quickly and quietly, children. We do not wish to anger the spirits.” We stayed in a clumped group, careful to remain in the light of the torches lining the path. Every so often, a figure would pop out of the woods, earning a startled gasp from us before telling the story of their life. Some were historical figures; others were local spirits looking for family members. Each time one entered the path, Vicki allowed them to speak, before ushering them on with a small token. “A coin to help them in the afterlife,” she would say.
All too fast, we exited the woods at the side of a wooden stage at the bottom of a hill. It was much more brightly lit than the forest behind us, aided by the shining stars and moon. Excited murmuring flowed through our group as we spread out and made our way to the stage. Vicki was there already, smiling as she gestured for us to take one of the many pumpkins strewn across it. “How many of you have ever carved a pumpkin?” All hands shot into the air, reaching for the stars and earning a smile. “Now does anyone know why we carve pumpkins?”
A single hand stayed up and she pointed to the young girl. “Because it’s fun,” she said.
Vicki chuckled. “That too, but also because of our ancestors. Years ago, people believed evil spirits would try to possess the living on Halloween. So they carved pumpkins and gourds with scary faces and put candles in them to scare evil spirits away. To this very day, people carve pumpkins and put them outside their houses.”
“Is that what we’re going to do?” a voice asked from one side of the stage.”
“You kids are going to draw the faces on the pumpkins, and then the adults are going to carve them for you. When you get done with your pumpkin, you can follow the torches up to the bonfire and make s’mores.” She waited a moment and then spread her arms wide. “Well?”
A rush of chaos that followed her words. The rest of the night was spent drawing on pumpkins and roasting various foods on the fire. The kids stayed up as long as possible, some even falling asleep around the fire only to be carried back to the cars parked up the hill.
That night as I lay in my bed, all I could think about was the Battle of the Kings. For now, we slept under the reign of the Holly King, but we would all rejoice when the Oak King returned to reclaim his kingdom, bringing spring’s warm rays with him.
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