October 18, 2016: Halloween, Part One: Corn Night

We’re well into autumn now, and coming up on the holidays. Some stores have had their Halloween decorations out since before Labor Day, and by now they’ve already started to put up Christmas greens. But our very first forthcoming celebration is a longstanding tradition not only in eastern Kentucky, but the Midwest also and at one time, probably throughout the rural United States. October 30 is known in some places as Mischief Night, Goosey Night, and in parts of northern Kentucky as Cabbage Night, but around here it’s always been Corn Night. And although the practice has declined a lot since I was young and perhaps even now it’s honored more in the breach than the observance, there are still kids in eastern Kentucky who “go a-cornin’” on the night before Halloween.

I admit, Corn Night and Halloween are pagan in origin, and they go back in our history and our blood, long before there was a Church, to our British and German ancestors’ harvest celebration that marked the beginning of the “darker half” of the year. In the olden days it was known among Celtic peoples as the festival of Samhain. Back in the era of the coal camps in eastern Kentucky the seasonal revelries could get very, very rough: even grownups would get into the act, blocking roads, setting fires,soaping windows, and tipping over outhouses. I personally know of one such case in which a woman was actually inside her privy when her neighbors toppled it, and later exacted retribution on them with the gift of a big batch of Ex-Lax brownies. They say revenge is like ice cream, best served cold, but at Halloween I suppose baked goods can work just as well. At least she didn’t use razor blades. But needless to say, such escapades are the reason why in most areas of the country the first of the two Samhain-based holidays is called Mischief Night (and even Hell Night in Detroit), and in fact the grounds for its being known as Cabbage Night in northern Kentucky. There, the tradition seems to have been for pranksters to toss rotten cabbages onto the porches of houses. I guess that’s better than setting a paper bag of feces alight at somebody’s front door, yelling “Fire!” and then running, but those who have to get rid of decomposed cabbage the next morning might feel differently.

But the way Corn Night got its particular name around here actually speaks more of charity and goodwill than mischief. Samhain—and later, All Hallows’ Eve or Halloween after the Church decided that November 1 and 2 were All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days, respectively—was always regarded in folk culture as a so-called “liminal” time, when for some reason the barriers between the Other World and this one could be breached more easily. This accounted for the belief in the presence of ghosts, goblins, fairies, and what not around the end of October, and along with it both the donning of costumes and the increase of mischief: people simply acted out their time-honored legends and, mostly with tongue in cheek, blamed the damage they did on the supernatural beings that were supposed to be out in force. But the source of the term Corn Night, the practice of tossing seed corn on the front porches of your neighbors, was different. According to the principles of old, the grain was actually an offering to the Otherworldly beings, a request to them to help themselves to the corn and leave the house in peace. Thus the presence of corn at your door was in fact both a friendly prank and an indication of respect, a sign that your neighbors and their children wished you well. Whether it’s a pagan pre-Christian tradition or not, a goodwill gesture is never a bad idea.

Soon we’ll once again hear the annual dire proclamations about the so-called “war on Christmas” from the same forces who like to remind us that Corn Night and Halloween are sinful because they’re pagan. How ironic: at one time in this country, the Puritan colonies of New England regarded Christmas itself as heathen, based more on the ancient Roman Saturnalia and German Yuletide festivals than on the birth of Jesus, and they’d lock up and fine anyone they found celebrating the day publicly. But I doubt we need to worry about the disappearance of any of our customary holidays any time soon. Maybe the issue simply depends on what side of the outhouse door one is on when it’s tipped over. Stay safe on Corn Night, all.

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