Holidays are an interesting thing.
Beneath each holiday seems to be an ancient story, a significant piece of history, that we can eternally and mystically relive despite being years, decades, centuries away from said event. Though most holidays are celebrated around such significant historic/religious events, sometimes it seems holidays either evolved or became instituted to have a mandate of recalling one important theme. Yam Kippur emphasizes the need to repent, and New Years similarly incites in us a feeling of starting anew. Thanksgiving emphasizes the importance of gratitude, and Christmas carries with its joy of the Incarnation also the importance of charity. We could spend quite some time on the list, but it seems underneath each holiday, each story and event, is an important lesson for humanity.
Now, most of us are pragmatic and realize the difficulty it is to live out these holidays THROUGHOUT our lives. Afterall, we should be starting anew, grateful, charitable EVERY DAY instead of just one day of the year. Still, to celebrate, think on, celebrate, and prepare for that one particular holiday and its humanitarian component has its merit. Hopefully the season leading up to Christmas is filled with charity, and in that time that we embody the charity we get accustom to it and grow our capacity for it.
Now that leave us to wonder if there is in fact any merit to Halloween. I hear the concern of a more fundamentalist/traditional mindset that looks upon this Halloween and deeming it as evil and dangerous to celebrate, that the ignorant indulgence of Halloween plays a part in a celebration for something monstrous or demonic. It seems that the ancient institution of the holiday MAY have pagan origins, of a superstitious acknowledgement of the spiritual activity on that particular autumn night. One might even argue that we should cancel Halloween because it is a ritual towards evil, a kind of libation to dark forces in our celebration.
I would like for a moment to acknowledge the concern voiced above, while also offering an alternative way of viewing Halloween…
Devotion to Debauchery
Let’s be honest. Halloween does embody vice into its celebration. But I would argue no more vice than Mardi Gras.
First, let’s speak to the topic of indulgence.
Like most holidays, Halloween is a “feast”, a day of partaking in more of something than what we might on any other day. Mardi Gras and Thanksgiving tend to be feasts of gluttony of meats, especially Mardi Gras that begins right before the beginning of Western Lent. And most holidays, especially New Years and St. Patrick’s day, all seem to increase the partaking of alcohol within their festivity. While Jesus does seem to highlight that there ARE in fact occasions for celebration even with wine, I would still point out that the over-consumption of such vices that we have pointed out can be “demonic” as Halloween is accused of being.
On Halloween, our consumption typically is that for sweets, especially when we think of Trick Or Treat. Still, alcoholic consumption is not uncommon among young adults who put on lewd costume parties and drunkly celebrate shamelessly in anonymity.
Which brings me to my next point…
The anonymity of the masks we wear on this day as well as the permission to dress untraditionally–such as in a lewd manner–is another distraction of this holiday. I say distraction because when one thinks on the inception and traditional celebration of this holiday the garb of bad jokes, scant outfits, and all manner of base apparel on this day doesn’t seem to fit the dark overtones that Halloween traditionally convey. A simple google search for “Halloween Costumes” reveals the absurdity of dress that we endeavor towards, dressing as genitalia, as half-naked representations of literally any role/occupation you can think of, and the assortment of cheap-laugh get ups that warrant nothing more than a single chortle and glance.
Though I tend to be more traditional in my celebration of Halloween, I would argue that the aforementioned costumes are less appropriate than some of the most gorish, ghoulish costumes I see roaming the street, that of ghosts, monsters, and slasher villains. These former, gimmicky costumes are deviations of the holiday, so far removed from anything reminiscent of death or of the spirit world. But then again, would we not say the same for the scant and glimmering costumes/masks we wear during Mardi Gras?
I suppose the last “unhelpful” component of Halloween I find is when we go overboard in the direction of Halloween’s ethos. We have a weird relationship with death in Western civilization. We dress up death, making it look tidy and sterile in our funeral homes, even encouraging loved ones to NOT see the body of their loved ones in their natural state in the hospital. And yet, we glorify the gore and macabre nature of it with our plethora of zombie movies and the devilish costumes we conceive of for Halloween. Though I think the attention we ought to have for Halloween is in the right direction here, I think the celebration and careless basking within it only further alienates us from real death. Perhaps seeing the scores of brainless zombie husks destroyed before our eyes on TV helps us cope with the ugliness of a human body, helps us take the humanity out of the corpse before us.
But it begs the question…is that helpful?
Remembrance of Death
Death happens all the time all around us, but for most of us we don’t have professions or live in environments where that exposure is so frequent. Speaking with those in careers of public service–whether it be the police department, firefighters, or medical workers–often offers a unique perspective on life and how fragile a thing it is. But while encountering such danger and tragedy is not for all of us, I do believe the aknowledgement and remembrance of death is important for every single one of us, no matter our creed or our vocation.
I believe Halloween grants the opportunity of putting a wise old saying into practice: remember your death.
Most of us are blessed with a clean bill of health, blessed to have family and friends who are in good shape and expected to live long lives. Not all of us are so blessed, however. Some of us have experienced loss far too early in our lives, have experienced the bitterness of death from an unexpected onset of sickness or a sudden tragedy.
We too often take our life, our vitality, our health for granted, believing that we ourselves and our loved ones will have until our 70s+ to live. Still, none of us have a single guarantee that we will wake up the next day, will have a safe drive to or from work, or suddenly suffer some life-interrupting affliction or calamity.
Fearing the possibility of our departure–or the departure of our loved ones–isn’t necessarily healthy, but the constant acknowledgement of it will help us live differently in a more meaningful way. There is a gratitude and a sobriety in this kind of lifestyle, of finding value in even bad days when nothing seems to go our way, of treading carefully in what we eat, drink, and spend time in with the consideration that our choices could affect the years of our life. Precious commodities increase in value when there is a short supply of the thing that is traded, and so if we look at the very hours of our lie as an uncertain commodity that could suddenly run out in a year, month, week, or even a day, we will then have more prudence in how we spend that precious time.
Halloween reveals to us the grim truth of life, that death is coming for all of us. If we even forget to remember our death 364 days out of the year, only to remember once out of the year that we are all going to die someday (perhaps that every day) maybe we then can make a segment of our life “hallowed”.
day of the dead
The other important component to Halloween I believe is the attention we give to not merely death but to the other aspect of our lives that we too often forget: spirit. Halloween reminds us not only of our mortality, but of those who have tasted death, and some cultures have done this in an incredible manner.
Day of the Dead and All Saints Day place particular emphasis on the importance of remembering those who we have lost, giving us occasion to grieve, mourn, and reminisce. It also should give us a comfort that nobody is truly forgotten, that we are created with the intention of being remembered, of being eternal, of living in communion no matter the divisions that separate us from one another.
I believe that Halloween and Day of the Dead also pry us out of an inherited mode of thinking, of a materialistic mindset that dominates our every day life. Too often we only consider that which is in front of us, that which his tangible, paying mind to only that which seems immediately relevant and controllable.
But there is ancient wisdom in considering the flip side to the reality we experience, the reality of spirit. We are soul and body, and although we have a better understanding of the physical part of our nature and the nature around us, we ought to give some consideration to the ramifications of having a spiritual realm around us. The ghosts and ghouls we see everyone dressing up as should be a sobering reminder that just as powerful forces exist physically before us–both wild and machine–that wild forces also exist in spirit. Conversely, we should look at the good things of nature and consider that goodness also exists in spirit.
The issue is that we fail to address this spirit, in the sense of protecting ourselves from it and engaging in it in a healthy/responsible way.
The sight of such ethereal entities we dress ourselves as ought to give us at least one day out of the year to stop and consider the existence of this invisible realm, the distractions in our life that get in the way of our recognition of it, and the ramifications it has on our souls and our lives.
Hallow your eve
Thus, this Halloween, as you look up to see if Trick-or-Treat is cancelled due to the current pandemic, as you think twice before going to that Halloween party or what you might be for it, consider how your Halloween can be “Hallowed” by which I mean literally “set apart” (the actual definition of holy/hallow).
Consider how this day can be to you and those you love set apart from the other 365 days of the year.
Even for those of you who are leery of its celebration, who still see it is a demonic day, consider how you can “baptize” or “sanctify” this particular evening. Can we not for a moment consider how God invites us to remember our death, to contemplate on our mortal being, the importance of our very souls? As though this holiday were a pagan in need of saving, fully immerse it in sobriety and holiness, christening it with a new name, that we may train for a new awareness to our souls’ betterment.
Spend some time, be it only one hour, aknowledging your mortality, considering a bucket list of things you feel you ought to do, journaling a list of things you are grateful for, contemplating what changes you can make in your life considering this fragility of life.
Spend some time remembering those you’ve lost. Engage with them safely, not through occult practices but in a prayerful way, as though they can hear you, of how you miss them. Pray for them, journal to them, visit their gravesite. Macabre as this practice seems one might find this practice of relating to the dead cathartic and eye-opening to one’s own life.
Most of all, be safe this Hallows Eve and be responsible. Take the evening not in vain for cheap laughs or as an excuse for drunkenness or sex. All such pleasures are fleeting when we consider the finite hours, minutes, and seconds we have to live, that our memories, our obituaries, our legacies, our very souls will have nothing to gain from such pursuits. Let’s not cancel the purpose of the holiday with such exploits.
I bid you all a contemplative, sober, and safe Halloween, and hope we all can responsibly wrestle with the remembrance of death.