The Lessons of Halloween
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, October 31, 2004
To many of our ancient ancestors, this season was the doorway to sacredness. Beyond this doorway lay the deep, dark cavern of the womb of our Mother Earth—the creative abyss—from which could grow all that is intuitive, contemplative, and natural upon this Earth.
At this time of year, it was said—indeed, on this very day—the veil between the two worlds grew thin, and the world of our physical reality and the world of our spiritual reality would come together and communicate. In earlier times, just as we do today, people wore costumes—perhaps the horns and skin of game animals—to show their respect for the life that had given itself so that the tribe might survive.
To many ancient peoples, this day marked the beginning of the new year—the new cycle. Sometimes, they would light huge ritual bonfires to burn away the images of the old year, and free themselves from the fears and worries of the past.
In our joy and merriment on this Halloween day, we celebrate these ancient ancestors, and become one with them along the Way of the Spirit.
For our pagan ancestors, Halloween—or Samhain, “Summer’s End”, as they called it—was a big deal, one of their most important holy day-- perhaps the most important milestone in the entire year. In our own day and age, Halloween has become a big deal once again, for better or worse—mostly for the better, I think. Certainly, it has become big business: According to the National Retail Federation, Halloween is second only to Christmas in terms of the amount of money spent in its celebration. Last year at Halloween, we Americans spent $ 1.8 billion on candy; $ 1.5 billion on costumes; and an incredible $ 2.5 billion on decorations—almost $ 6 billion in all! That’s a lot of candy corn!
Like just about everything else in our society, Halloween is big business—very big business. It’s easy, of course, to become skeptical about things that become as commercial as Halloween has; it’s easy to doubt their spiritual significance and their deeper meaning. But I think that the deeper truths of Halloween persist and abide, in spite of its enormous commercialization.
Now, it’s true that some Christians in a good number of churches oppose Halloween; they don’t like it one bit. I remember when we lived in Maine some years ago, and the kids were younger, we had friends who wouldn’t allow their children to celebrate Halloween. It was “Devil’s Holiday”, they said. Certainly, if we’re honest, they could be forgiven for seeing something sinister or malevolent in much of the atmosphere that accompanies Halloween. Furthermore, these friends of ours, dedicated Christians that they were, said, Christianity had come to supplant paganism, to cast it aside, to replace it and supercede it. What need did we have, then, for such a pagan-based holiday, however “harmless”—“for kids”—it might seem on the surface?
It’s an odd celebration, certainly. And without taking at least a look at the history of Halloween, we might be forgiven for wondering what we are to make of all these devils and witches running around, of all of these ghosts and ghouls and various creatures that go bump in the night? Without a deeper plumbing of the meanings at the heart of Halloween, we might well think, as many do, that it’s silliness at best, or downright sinister at worst.
But as open-minded religious men and women, as spiritual searchers, and as real universalists, I think there are important lessons that the tradition of Halloween offers us, in our modern day and age, more than ever.
The first lesson of Halloween is not to be afraid of witches.
More than 2000 years ago, the festival we now celebrate as Halloween was New Year’s Eve on the Celtic calendar. As we have said, it was called Samhain, and it marked the time after the harvest when the souls of the dead were thought to roam the now-barren fall landscape. Samhain marked the time when the boundary between the world of the dead and the world of the living was at its thinnest, so sometimes people wore frightening masks to try to scare the dead spirits into moving on into the afterlife.
When Christianity overtook Britain, many of the earlier pagan festivals and celebrations were taken into the Christian calendar, and recast in a new mode. Samhain became “All Hallows’ Eve”—or “All Saints’ Eve”—that is, the eve before All Saints Day on November 1st. The Church added a new feast day—All Souls Day on November 2nd—to try to replace All Hallow’s Eve (or “Hallow’een”), but many of the ancient pagan customs persisted—as they did in our celebrations of Christmas, and Easter, and other holy days on the Christian calendar.
“Christianity is paganism reinterpreted,” as one writer has put it. Or, at least, much of the vividness and color and joy of the Christian liturgy comes from the practices of our pre-Christian pagan ancestors.
Halloween gives us a chance to honor these ancestors, and to ponder just how deeply their earth-based traditions—their respect for the sacred circle of life and their reminder to us to live in harmony with the cycles and rhythms of nature—can enrich and empower our own personal faiths.
Halloween reminds us not to be afraid of witches, but rather to honor these ancient wise men and wise women as spiritual forbears.
The second lesson of Halloween is its reminder that we dwell in two worlds: that we are both physical and spiritual beings, and that we need to keep open the channels of communication between those two realms inside of each of us, and beyond.
Our ancient ancestors knew intuitively the power of the “time between”, the critical importance of that time of year when the veil was at its thinnest, and the amazing things that can happen near boundaries and borderlands. Magic happens around thresholds, the place where inner and outer come together.
In Ireland in ancient days (and maybe even yet today in more rural areas), a visitor to a home would stop before the threshold and, before entering, say a blessing for those inside. The earth just inside the door was considered holy ground, and to have special healing powers because it was an “in-between place”, which marked the boundary between the individual household and the whole wide world (indeed, the whole universe) that lay beyond. It was a crack, a crevice, between the two worlds, where the power of both could rush in and intermingle.
As the great student of cultures and religions Mircea Eliade wrote:
In Mexican culture, there’s a parallel holiday around this time of year called the Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. (It’s on Tuesday, November 2nd this year—our Election Day. I will leave it to you to ponder the significance—if any-- of our national elections being held on the Day of the Dead…) As one Mexican has put it, the Day of the Dead is a way of sharing our lived with our lost ones—with those who have passed on, whom we have loved and lost. It is a declaration that they are still a part of us, that we are still joined with them in an indestructible garment of eternity. The traditional parade for the Dia de los Muertos begins with the words “Vamanos con los muertos!” (“Come, let us go with the dead.”). As go we all will—sooner or (we hope) later.
Halloween, too, reminds us that there is another realm, a spiritual realm, as much a part of our reality as our physical realm-- and that as complete beings, we need to keep communication between the two realms open.
The third lesson of Halloween is that we shouldn’t be afraid to try on different masks! We need to break routine from time to time; we need to imagine ourselves as superheroes—as cartoon characters—as brave warriors and beautiful princes—as clowns, and angels, and court jesters—and what have you. We wear many hats already in these lives of ours—hats as fathers and mothers; sons and daughters; hats of our various professions. But these roles we play do not exhaust the possibilities that lie dormant in our souls.
The masks and costumers we don on Halloween—as esoteric and exotic and downright weird and scary as they are—can speak to us a word or two about those different possibilities that lie within us. We have the chance, if only for a few hours, to transform ourselves into something we might have always wanted to be. And—who knows?—perhaps this simple ritual of transformation can open up new possibilities for the men and women we might yet become.
Finally, the fourth lesson of Halloween is its reminder to us to celebrate life! To en-joy (that is, consciously to bring joy into our lives). It is a call to loosen up, to have fun, to become like children once again. It reminds us that religious ritual need not be always solemn and somber; that it need not be as dry as dust.
Halloween is one of the few times in the entire year when adults are allowed to play “dress up” and just act downright silly. It’s a time when we can give our imaginations full reign, and play tricks on one another, and where chocolate takes its rightful place as one of the major food groups. The social conventions we live with every day, year in, year out, are suspended, or even reversed, at Halloween. We can be whoever we want to be on Halloween!
Halloween is a celebration, but also a rest stop, along the way of our journeys through life. It is a chance to suspend narrow reason and cold logic—if only for a day or two—and let the cool winds of autumn and the changing seasons refresh our souls. It is a chance to go outside in the cool night, on the cusp of November, the frontier of winter, and breathe in the rich aromas of turf fire and fallen leaves and the turning year.
It is a blessed time to light again the bonfires of our souls. To lift our spirits above the empty materialism that rules over us all too often. To remember those who have come before. To rejoice in another turning of the wheel of life. And to prepare ourselves for the next step of our own journeys.
Halloween reminds us that there is always one cycle ending and another coming to birth. At this point in the life of our world, I take great hope from that irrefutable fact. As it is for the seed that lies dormant in the rich, dark earth, so may it be in the lives and souls of all of us.