Holy Halloween: A Day to Dance with Death

We modern Americans rarely -- if ever -- think about death if we can possibly help it. Halloween offers us a way to engage with our natural fascination with death in a way that is scary yet safe.
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Halloween descends from Samhain, the most significant holiday of the Celtic calendar. Being a pastoral people, the Celts counted their seasons according to the needs of their cattle and sheep rather than the agricultural seasons that farmers might mark. The year was divided into summer, when the herds are led our to graze, and winter, when they were brought back home again. Samhain, the day when the cows came home, was considered the first day of winter and also the first day of the New Year.

Samhain exposes a crease in time, a fissure between summer and winter, between the old year and the new. During this period, the dead have easy access to the living and are likely to pay a visit. Just as the herds return home to the warmth and security of the hearth in winter, so too must the ghosts of the dead seek being cheered by familiar surroundings and loved ones. Certainly one owes the same hospitality to the ancestors as one gives to the animals!

Burial cairns were opened to release dead souls and air out the interiors of their tombs. The old ones were offered sacrificed animals, entertained and fed in exchange for gifts of sweets from the underworld. But in addition to the benign and beloved ghosts wandering about on Samhain, there were also innumerable fairies and goblins, strange specters and evil spirits released into the dark by Lord Samhain, Lord of Death. During Samhain, people outfitted themselves in masks and costumes as a sort of protection ritual, believing that one could successfully hide behind such a disguise and thereby escape bedevilment by the masses of spirits on the loose.

For hundreds of years Christian missionaries tried without success to suppress Samhain and convert the Celts. In the eleventh century, Odilo, abbot at Cluny, claimed this heathen death feast for the Church. Hallow Tide, Holy Time, is a three-day feast -- All Hallow's Eve, All Saint's Day and All Soul's Day -- during which prayers are offered for Christian saints and souls, and only for Christian saints and souls. All others, those doomed souls whose burials were not consecrated in Christ, return to Earth on All Hallow's Eve to haunt the living. Menacing demons and flying witches along with their trusty black cat sidekicks, the persistent practitioners of the pagan religion, were also thought to be out and about and up to no good.

The potato famine of 1846 sent a million Irish immigrants to the United States. They brought with them their ancient Celtic customs, among them the feast of Samhain, which, as good Catholics, they now called Hallowe'en. This shadow festival of soul survival struck a responsive chord in the American people, who instantly adopted it. To this day, Halloween is celebrated in some fashion by practically every person in North America. Sales of decorations and goodies rival the lucrative Christmas season.

The Spaniards, French, and Portuguese who landed in the Western Hemisphere brought with them a Latin version of All Soul's Day. Their customs merged with those of the indigenous Indians, who, too, observed a fall feast of the dead. The Laguna Pueblo people visited the cemeteries to upkeep the gravesites and to serve ritual feasts to the departed ones. It was also the practice of the Aztecs to attend to the graves of ancestors in mid fall. These were weeded and swept, markers scrubbed and painted.

The amalgamation of the Catholic and Native American traditions is Día de los Muertos. On the Day of the Dead, like their Aztec ancestors before them, modern Mexicans gather to clean and decorate the cemeteries. They cleanse the atmosphere by lighting candles and copal incense on the gravestones. A picnic feast is then shared among the living and the dead, recognizing no difference between them. Those who are dead were once living, and those who are now alive will one day die.

There is demonstrated on Día de los Muertos a most primal and personal identification with death, a palpable intimacy. People paint their faces as skeletons and go about their daily business. They eat sweet breads and candies in the shape of skulls and coffins. Special toys, dolls and tableaus are sold depicting skeleton cops and skeleton banditos, skeleton bus drivers and skeleton baseball players, skeleton dentists and skeleton patients, skeleton brides and skeleton grooms, skeleton nuns and skeleton ballerinas, skeleton dogs and skeleton cats. Everybody has a skeleton, after all.

We modern Americans rarely -- if ever -- think about death if we can possibly help it. We like to watch it on a big screen well enough, or perpetrate it on innocent populations overseas, but in "real life," we just don't do death. This is why I think Halloween has become so poplar. It offers us a way to engage with our natural fascination with death in a way that is scary yet safe. At Halloween we get to acknowledge our fear of death while still having a good time.

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