Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Things that Go Bump in the Night

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, October 26, 2008

At this time of year, our ancient ancestors said, the veil between the world of the living and the dead grew thin, and the world of our physical reality and the world of our spiritual reality would come together and communicate. To many ancient peoples, the day of Samhain—October 31st on our modern calendars-- marked the beginning of the new year, the start of a new cycle. Sometimes, they would light huge ritual bonfires to burn away the images of the old, and free themselves from the fears and worries of the past.
In our joy and merriment at Halloween, we celebrate these ancient ancestors. Indeed, we join with them again along the way of the spirit.

For our pagan ancestors, Halloween—“Summer’s End”, as they sometimes called it—was a big deal, one of their most important holy days; it was, 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 Halloween candy, $ 1.5 billion on Halloween costumes, and an incredible $ 2.5 billion on Halloween 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. No surprise there. It’s easy, of course, to become cynical about things that become as commercial as Halloween has; it’s easy to doubt that they might even have some deeper meaning or spiritual significance. But in spite of its enormous commercialization, I think that the deeper truths of Halloween persist and abide.

Now, it’s true that some Christians in a good number of churches don’t like Halloween one bit. I remember when we lived in Mainesome years ago and the kids were younger, we had friends who wouldn’t allow their children to celebrate Halloween because it was “Devil’s Holiday ”, they said. They weren’t alone. 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 that Christianity had come to supplant paganism, cast it aside, replace it completely. What need did they have—what need did we have-- for such a pagan-based holiday-- however “harmless”—however much “just 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 that we are, and as those who seek to be true universalists, and honor all of our spiritual ancestors, I think that there are important lessons that the tradition of Halloween offers us, traditions which perhaps we need 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’ve learned, 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 Christianized 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, perhaps, it is paganism deepened and intensified in the light of a whole new salvation epic. Christianity has also gained much more vividness and color and joy in reflecting some of the practices of our pre-Christian pagan ancestors.

Halloween gives us a chance to honor these pagan 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 ourselves and beyond ourselves.

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 today in more rural areas), a visitor to someone’s home would stop before the threshold before entering, and say a blessing for those inside. The earth just inside the door was considered holy ground, and thought 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 wide 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 scholar of cultures and religions Mircea Eliade wrote:

“[The threshold is] the limit, the boundary, the frontier that distinguishes and opposes two worlds—and at the same time the paradoxical place where the two worlds communicate, where passage from the profane to the sacred… becomes possible…”

In Mexican culture, there’s a parallel holiday around this time of year, that takes place on All Souls’ Day (November 2nd) called the Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. As one Mexican writer has put it, the Day of the Dead is a way of sharing our lives 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—as Sarah Palin or Barack Obama or what have you. Sometimes, we need to let fantasy and imagination have free reign within us.

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 don’t 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 persons we might yet become.

Finally, the fourth lesson of Halloween (and it’s a big one) is its reminder to us to celebrate life! To en-joy life (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 religion need not always 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 chief among the major food groups. The social conventions we live with every day, year in, year out, are suspended, or even reversed, at Halloween. On Halloween, we can be whoever we want to be!

Halloween is a kind of rest stop, along the way of our journeys; it can be an oasis in the desert of modern 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, on 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, especially, that is an irrefutable fact that gives me great hope. There is always one cycle ending and another coming to birth. 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, and of our world.

As our ancient pagan ancestors would say: Blessed be.

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