NOW, before you think of me as one of these religious people who turns their lights off on Halloween and doesn’t let my kid dress up, let me tell you this… We fully participate. Always have. Our neighborhood is one that vanloads of families pile into for the big night. My kid is dressing up as a ninja warrior this year (a stark contrast to the princess fairy she was last year, but we’re going with it).
Seriously, Halloween has long been one of my favorite holidays. As I write this, I’m taken back to when I was 8 or 9 years old, hanging out with my cousins in poorly ventilated and highly flammable plastic costumes (probably from K-Mart — it was the 80's) having dinner as our excitement grew the more the sun went down. Then we’d come back with waxy makeup smeared across our sweaty faces, eat candy, and watch Elvira (oh, Elvira — my first crush).
As I’ve written about before, I wanted to be an Exorcist after seeing the small portion of the movie that I could watch without running face-first into my sofa to hide my face from the demonic spinning-head possessed victim. But I never much liked slasher flicks. Give me spooky, not psychotic. I grew up with Freddy Krueger, Jason, and Michael Myers — mild stuff in today’s standards. The generations behind me took the slasher flick to a whole new level with the bizarre, rapey stuff we have today.
And that’s where I want to start this rant, right there.
We Americans are really bad at handling death, so we have no idea how to celebrate Halloween.
Fortunately, death and I go way back (is it fortunate? — yes, I think so). I lost a lot of family members by a very young age in life. By the time I was 25, I’d lost a mother, a few aunts and uncles, a brother, and three grandparents.
I never had any kind of secular or religious death counseling, but my father was an emotionally intelligent one who’d talk with me through these events. Or at least be open to doing so when I wanted to.
I consider myself fortunate. From a young age, I understood on a visceral level that this life is temporary. No, I haven’t made it to this point without any scars. I’m sure I could still use a lot of counseling. But I’d like to think my scars are at least somewhat visible to my eyes — not totally hidden away to internally fester.
In our culture, death happens across town in hospitals and funeral homes. We have armies of death professionals to tend to the dying in their final days. After all, we have higher priorities like working at least one job to pay for the stuff our debt-ridden and safety-netless Western lifestyle calls for (Jonas, don’t get cynical — reel it in here… Breeeathe…).
We have a lot of suppressed wounds around death out west, for the most part. In a lot of cultures, and in our past one, death happens in the home. It’s real. We get the bitter gift of looking into a loved one’s eyes when life fades from their gaze.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s something different about those who’ve come face to face with the death of another. There’s something in their presence that’s more grounded. Less afraid. More compassionate. More prudent (in a good way).
[Yes, just like anything, there’s an extreme to this (PTSD). I’m talking more about the middle ground here.]
Bringing All Hallows’ Eve back
Halloween is a Western spin-off from the old holy days of All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day, Allhallowtide, Samhain, and a few others depending on the culture. For a very long time, we humans felt a need to dedicate a portion of our calendar year in remembrance of the dead and to calibrate our spirit to prepare for the darker days.
I love using the seasons as a sort of guide for the trajectory and cycles of my life. It’s what I love so much about the liturgical year. And now, with the darkening of days, we have the perfect opportunity to focus inwards. To retreat from the busyness of summer and to rest in the secure blanket of darkness that enfolds us in these autumn and winter months.
This doesn’t have to be a religious thing in an institutional sense. After all, religion comes from the Latin root, religare (to bind), which is where the word, ligament is from. It’s etymology points to the thing that holds us together with others. No dogma necessary for this to happen.
We can use this time to bind (bond?) with others both in physical presence as well as in spirit. I suggest creating some rituals for yourself and/or your family around this holiday. Visit a graveyard. Pull out some old pictures. Light some candles. Tell some stories of those who’ve passed.
Allow yourself (and others) space to mourn. To grieve. To sob uncontrollably. Go ahead and be somber. And then, to laugh uncontrollably. Because the dead are still with us. They have so much to show us. And so many of us have gone years — decades, in some cases — without allowing ourselves to move through any of the natural human processes in order to let death bring us more life.
Please don’t relegate this holiday to artificial candy and pornographic slasher flicks… Our culture has cheapened it, but you can bring it back to life in your home.