This is Halloween: a time of spookiness and scary stories, horror movies and dire safety warnings. What we miss or forget in all this get-the-costume-get-the-candy rushing about is what we’re celebrating and where it comes from. Oh, the religious right will try to remind us: They ban Halloween because it’s pagan, devil-worship, evil etc. But even they forget their heritage on this dark holiday.
Halloween or some version of Souls Day Eve is celebrated all over the world and came to us when the Gaelic immigrants –Irish to us –came to America. In the same way that some places in the world Christmas is still a sacred holiday, there are some where All Hallows Eve is a solemn and austere time too.
Halloween as practiced here, is really a combination of Druid practice with a touch of other religious beliefs thrown in. This weekend as we help our kids to dress up and wear masks and we carve pumpkins and eat candy corn we’re following ancient customs. We wink at the Druidic past that underlies Irish Catholicism. It’s a part of our history that’s so easy to forget.
When the first settlers came to the New World there was no Halloween; It was only after the Irish immigrants came bringing their old customs that the ancient Druidic and Celtic customs joined our world. Bonfires and harvest suppers –even celebrated in churches –come directly from the dark night woods and the bare harvested fields. A nod, not so slight, to our belief in the nature gods in our midst.
As with many other holidays –and almost all Christian observances—new religious rites were deliberately laid on top of ancient pagan festivals. Halloween emerged from an act in the 8th Century when the All Saints Chapel in Rome was dedicated. That new holy day suppressed one of the oldest Celtic festivals called Samhein celebrated on the last day of October. Samhein celebrated harvest.
In Druidism, the ancient Celtic religion—underlying English, Irish and Scottish culture –the new year began November 1st so our Halloween was their New Year’s Eve.
Except for the candy, October 31st doesn’t leave much for grownups. Being scared of goblins and ghoulies lost its sway when I got old enough to lose people that I loved. The dead just aren’t scary in the same way anymore. I think that’s true for many of us. Hence the arrival of so many ghost and afterlife TV shows and classes on talking to the dead. It’s a demographic phenomenon as much as spiritual. We baby boomers are losing family and closing in on our own deaths, so like everything else we touch we want to manage this unmanageable part of life too. We are a generation that has always been able to stay in touch. And we still expect to even with our loved ones who have died.
That’s what this holiday is really about. There is a belief that in the days near the end of October the veil separating this world and the next is thinner and so it’s a time we can be closer to those who have died.
A ritual is a way of ordering life. Whether Purim or Advent, hearing Mass or saying Kaddish, small ceremonies help us sort and reframe our memories. When someone dies the relationship doesn’t stop, it’s renegotiated, literally re-conceived.
This isn’t a very American idea of death. Culturally our preferences are for efficiency and effectiveness; even with grief we use words like closure and process. I think this is why we can sometimes be so hard on the grieving, and why we want them to go through those stages and be done with it. We love closure and things that are sealed and settled. But death and grief, for all their seeming finality, are not as final as we would like.
The root of the word grieve is heavy. We carry our dead as a cherished burden. Death ends a life but not a relationship. Who would want to close the door on that?