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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Hallowe'en is Coming: some thoughts

It’s that time of year again. The shops are full of lurid spectres, ghosts, creepy-crawlies, masks and skeletons. ‘Halloween is almost here!!! Come to Wilko for all your goulish gear and requirements.’ (Shouldn’t that be ghoulish?) The Yorkshire Trading Company in a Durham shopping mall has a tall skeleton attired in spooky white and wearing a black cross. Dangling above is a big red disc promoting a ‘Bloody Weapon £1’. 

The history is colourful. It poked fun at death and the devil by partying and misrule: lighting fires, dressing up, mumming in the streets or taking part in a danse macabre. People play-acted dead souls who returned to knock on the door looking for hospitality. Much of this goes back to primitive atavistic fears about winter and keeping light and warmth alive during the darkest season of the year and threat posed by the spirits of ancestors if they were not treated with respect. To a pre-modern society all too familiar with cold, flood, disease and famine, it was an ominous time of year, this day midway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. 

In the Celtic calendar, Samhain marked the end of the harvest and the gateway of another year, though it’s not certain that the day’s mythology included the dead coming back to haunt the living. In early Christian times, the ambiguities of the season were not forgotten. All Saints Day on 1 November and All Souls next day kept the memory of these life-and-death, light-and-dark motifs. The name Hallowe’en is purely Christian, ‘the eve of All Hallows’. But Christians have differed on whether or not to embrace Hallowe’en ceremonies and the permitted chaos that went with them. Yet the tradition has persisted. In Europe and North America it’s seen as a day of parody and irony. Its defenders say that none of it is meant literally, but like all humour it makes a serious point about what lies beyond the familiar horizons of what we can see and touch.  Others add that the psychoanalytic observation that it acts out the deep fears and anxieties hidden in our psyche, our ‘shadow’. Both are healthy instincts that should be playfully encouraged, not suppressed. 

So if Halloween recognises mystery, and parodies death and the demonic, why don’t I care for it? It’s not the commercialism, rampant, plastic and shoddy though most of it is. It’s more about what it means. 

It brings back a memory. One October night over 30 years ago, the front door bell rang during dinner. My little daughter came with me to see who it was. When I opened the door I was faced with the sight of a full-sized open coffin. It took me a few moments to take it in. There was no-one to be seen: its mischievous young bearers were hiding down the street. It was as if it had arrived out of nowhere, a sinister memento mori meant especially for me. When the trick-and-treat kids came running, I found some sweets for them and they went away satisfied, as did my daughter who did not see why she should be left out; she got her fistful of liquorice allsorts too.

I found it eerily discomfiting. That’s the whole point of Hallowe’en, you say: it’s meant to unsettle you. Well maybe. But there’s a bigger point here. In earlier Christian societies, it belonged to a triduum: three days of religious commemorations. Hallowe’en was the vigil, a day of preparation. Next day came the joyful celebration of the saints brought the light of Christ into our world, and after that, All Souls with its solemn memories of the dead and the opportunity to think about dying and death in the light of the crucified and risen One. It would have made all the difference that the rituals, parody and play-acting were firmly held within a Christian framework. Lose that, and Hallowe’en becomes an end in itself, one more occasion of self-indulgence, an anti-game perhaps, laden with an unhealthy aspect that relishes frightening ourselves and others.  

Some churches ritualise Hallowe’en by devising games and rituals that focus not on darkness but on light, not on 'ghoulies and ghosties and things that go bump in the night', but on the wholesome goodness of the saints. My question about that is whether there’s still room to acknowledge the reality of the shadow, all that is threatening, oppressive and demonic in life as the traditional symbols and rituals encouraged. Perhaps what’s needed is a way of ritualising both together within one Hallowe’en ceremony. It could look like a foreshadowing of Good Friday and Easter when we recall both the awfulness of Golgotha, the ‘Place of the Skull’, and what follows, the new life and expectant hope of an empty tomb in the spring time garden. These are the places where truly human beings and saints are formed.

Has this more holistic kind of approach that moves purposefully yet playfully from death to resurrection already been tried? It would be good to know. I can see how it might have the makings of a cathartic ritual and a great party.

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