This year for Halloween snacks, Mom bought a box of 18 packages of bat- and pumpkin-shaped pretzels. If this year follows the pattern of the last five, we’ll have twelve of those bags left Friday morning. Three will have gone to neighborhood urchins, and the other three will have gone to my grandniece and grandnephews.
For one thing, we live in a cul-de-sac near the only entrance to the neighborhood; most of the houses are further up and away. For another, we live near a mall — certainly not so grand a consumerist paradise as Mall of America, but they do sabotage the spirit of Halloween fairly effectively by handing out candy and treats there. Madison Avenue has done more than four hundred years of Puritans and one hundred fifty years of skeptics to ruin Catholic festivals … simply by marketing them.
No, I’m not going to any parties. Many years ago, while resting my head on the cool porcelain of a toilet between violent bouts of vomiting, I concluded that getting drunk wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. And the adults at some of the parties I’ve been to are like the people who show up at medieval fairs dressed as characters from fantasy novels; they’ve forced me to conclude that some people just don’t “get” Halloween.
(By “fantasy” I mean they show up as either elves or dominatrices. At one major fair in Waxahachie, I saw a woman who was wearing leather “Daisy Dukes” with a sword strapped around her hips and a chain-mail top with not so much as a Brazilian bikini top underneath it. I’m guessing her research stopped around Season Three of Xena: Warrior Princess.)
So okay, if you show up at the party dressed as Yakko the Clown, I get it — clowns scare many adults. C+ for the effort, regardless of the execution. But where’s the memento mori in dressing like a French maid or Superman? To get closer to the feel of what Halloween is supposed to be about, you’re better off going someplace where El Día de los Muertos, the “Day of the Dead”, is still celebrated.
First and foremost, Halloween is the beginning of the Hallowmas triduum: All Hallows’ Eve, the Solemnity of All Saints, and the Feast of All Souls (more formally — and more clumsily — called the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed). The Church has recognized an astonishing number of saints over the course of two millennia; the old Catholic Encyclopedia notes that “In the persecution of Diocletian [303-311] the number of martyrs became so great that a separate day could not be assigned to each.” And that was 17 centuries ago! The Church is also aware that there have likely been saints and martyrs of whom she will never have record.
November 1st was eventually selected to be the day on which the presence of so many saints in our lives and history should be celebrated. And as feast days generally had vigils — preparatory religious assemblies, often with some riotous behavior afterward — the Feast of All Hallows had an All Hallows’ Eve right from the start. We’re still talking 1200-1400 years ago; vigils no longer have such shenanigans — except for this one. To repeat, then, Halloween first comes to us as the start of a religious holiday — Christianity’s Memorial Day times three.
However, every culture has its own way of remembering the dearly departed, some of which predate Christianity, or at least their introduction to it. So it shouldn’t be surprising that elements of pre-Christian Aztec culture can be found in El Día de los Muertos celebrations, or that the ghostly themes of Halloween can be traced back to the Celtic Samhain (pronounced sah-win). What matters for us, and for “getting” Halloween, is the synthesis that came out of the culture clash.
The custom of dressing in costumes, or “guising” as it was once called, arose from the Celtic belief that certain powers waxed at four roughly equidistant times during the year, Samhain being one of them. Under the influence of this “wikke aspect grim”, a vengeance-minded spirit would have the power on this one day to strike a human who had somehow earned his/her malice. To thwart these attacks, people would disguise themselves in costumes, in the hope that the vengeful spirits would not recognize them.
The custom of practical jokes and scaring others, I’m convinced, came out of Celtic humor, which allows them to laugh at themselves, as well as to laugh at serious things precisely because they are serious — serious as in too deep for all but the lightest words, or too painful for tears. The Celts make fun of malicious spirits because laughter allows them to live with the knowledge that such spirits exist.
The Catholic Church responded to the belief, in effect, by saying, “You’re right. The spirits one encounters in this world are malicious; they can’t be trusted even when they seem benign. God and the angels are immaterial beings — but so are Satan and his demons. So you are right to fear them. But you can call on the aid of Christ, with all the saints to back your plea, and he will protect you from Satan and all his damned host … if only you have a little faith.”
Much of what passes for fact about pre-Christian witches and witchcraft is, I’m afraid, revisionist nonsense. Witches and warlocks were marginal figures, who were sometimes sought in secret, tolerated in public, and completely trusted nowhere. Dealers in healing herbs and plants, they also dealt in abortifacients, a recourse only for those who bore children of wrongful unions. Sometimes sought because they often claimed to have the Sight, they were more often avoided because of their seeming knowledge of the future.
Again the Church said, “You’re right not to trust to witches, or sorcerers, or anyone who can claim to see the future. If their power is real, it is given to them by evil spirits, not God; if not, then they are frauds. Even the desire for such power is corruptive. No child can reasonably be held guilty for the circumstances of his conception; with their poison, they compound the parents’ first sin with a second sin more horrible and unjust. Well did Moses command, in Leviticus 19:31, ‘Do not turn to mediums or wizards; do not seek them out, to be defiled by them.’”
Now, Halloween hasn’t become completely sanitized in the manner of “the holidays”. But it has been watered down in many places, to the point where it’s pretty much a costume party with an occasional mention of monsters. People go to haunted houses — which are mostly hostels populated by serial killers and movie slashers rather than intersections of the material and immaterial worlds — rather than decorate their own houses in the spirit (*ahem!*) of the season. They watch Final Destination and Jason vs. Freddie rather than The Haunting or The Exorcist.
Some might say it’s because we no longer believe in evil spirits. I disagree — more people believe in them than you think. Rather, it’s because we no longer have the faith to laugh at them.
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