It’s Halloween again and I will be at the front door passing out candies to wide eyed ghouls, goblins and ghosts in this annual ritual of courting the dark and dangerous. The front door is decorated with eerie figures, carved pumpkin and flickering candles and children will walk up the steps, parents not far behind, to receive their own cache of the commercially driven candy fest. Some of the smallest children hold on tightly to Mom. They reach out their bags for candy, whispering ‘trick or treat’ with both fear and delight in their eyes.
What is this spiritual ritual in which so many people participate? And what is its meaning for us as we navigate the complexities of modern life?
Halloween has its origins in the Celtic festival of Samhain, which marked the end of the harvest and ushered in the winter season with its long dark nights. It was seen as a time of transition during which the veil between the living and the dead was thin, and communication between the realms could take place. In the Christian tradition, All Hallows’ Eve, the evening of October 31, was a time of vigil to begin the Feast of All Saints or Hallowmas. This Feast consisted of the Christian holy days of All Hallows Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2) which marked the time to honour the saints and pray for departed souls. Many of the practices of Halloween today– the dressing up into scary costumes, the sharing of sweets, the pumpkin carvings, the jack o’ lanterns, the bonfires, the fascination with death and the dark – find their origins in these ancient religious celebrations.
There are people who believe that this is a negative holiday. That it introduces children to expressions of fear and evil, unnecessarily scaring them. Reality is already full of terrible and shadowy evil, they say, just turn on the news and the darkness of our world comes crashing in. Why exacerbate it, or worse, celebrate it by ritualizing the fear and imprinting it on the innocent minds of our children?
But I think that there may be a more positive value to the Halloween tradition.
In the Christian Hallowmas tradition, the emphasis of this holiday is not so much on the dark, but on the light. It takes seriously the dark and terrible, but shifts the attention from the ghouls and goblins to the saints and souls who have traversed the dark and arrived in the light. All Saints’ or Hallowmas is the time that Christians are free to explore the dark, not to find and be the evil or celebrate death, but to see that the darkness of the night need not be feared and that it will yield the light of day. The Festival remembers the lives of the saints and souls who have gone before, gives gratitude for their gifts and wisdom, and celebrates their union with God, Light of Lights. It does not deny the terrible elements of our existence, but emphasis the power that each of us has to confront the dark with the saintly qualities of love, compassion, generosity and gratitude, as exemplified by saints and souls who have gone before. All this, of course, is a reflection of the core narrative of the Christian tradition: Jesus faced terrible evil, darkness and death, but did not let fear overcome him, but holding on to the Divine Light, was resurrected into the fullness of that Light. And so it is for all of us.
Halloween seen from this perspective is a playful snubbing one’s nose at fear. The ritual journey into fear and darkness allows us to also discover the courage, resilience and love exemplified by the saints.
This Halloween, bring on the goblins and remember the saints!
Originally appeared in the Times Colonist on October 30, 2013.