Halloween was not always fun. To the ancient Celts, who seem to have originated it, Halloween was deadly serious. By October’s end, the dark came early, the cold never left and death dwelt nearby. Surviving the coming winter demanded attention.
These peoples of ancient Ireland knew of thin places—sacred wells, haunted groves—where the veil between our world of stone and wood and another world of spirit and imagination was flimsy. And at Halloween, they felt, these worlds were very close indeed. So they dressed up to confront and confuse the demons of the other side, powers they did not understand but had to face. They were saying to these forces: “We are just as strong as you. We can match your power for evil with our power for good. You can haunt us and harm us, but in the end you are no match for us.”
I learned of this in October 2010, when I was in Dublin. I took a day trip up north to Newgrange, a Neolithic burial chamber some 5,000 years old. It was constructed so that the rising sun on Dec. 21, the winter solstice, shines directly into the door to this chamber. The builders knew how to celebrate the earth’s victory over darkness!
Modern revelry on Halloween bears some resemblance to ancient fears. When children dress up for Halloween, they conjure up images of the other world the Celts knew of and invest it with their own defiance. The 5-year-old ghost declares that ghosts do not scare her! The 7-year-old in his pumped-up Chicago Bears uniform is telling the world that he will be that fearsome Bear some day. The-8-year-old fairy is as regal as any bride in Westminster Abbey. One year when a nephew of mine was about five, we went to a neighborhood park to face the spook trail set up there. He endured bravely but begged Mom and Dad not to make him do that ever again. Let’s leave Halloween to tricks and treats.
But Halloween is not just a game for children. We know from the specialty Halloween stores that suddenly open for the season that Halloween is big business. As Dublin came alive at October’s end last year, phantoms of every sort haunted O’Connell Street and the Temple Bar—not so many ghosts and demons as St. Patricks and nuns and punks, all with healthy draughts of Guinness. They would hardly scare away the forces of evil, but they were having a lot of fun.
We have other ways to confront our fears today, our demons, our ghosts, our hostile powers. There are things that reasonable people can fear—not becoming crippled by it but needing to face it. Some drown their fears with drink or drugs—hardly a healthy response to things we cannot control. Some seek therapeutic help and benefit a lot from it. Some take action to confront sources of destructive power. Our current economic and political climate has induced thousands to take to the streets, to occupy public spaces. This is how they creatively face a future that looks bleak and without hope. And simple knowledge can be a helpful first step in taking control of what threatens us, making the unknown less fearsome and less powerful.
Our faith, of course, is a great resource. In the Gospels, Jesus appears to his frightened apostles, and they think he is a ghost. “Don’t be afraid,” he urges them. Don’t be afraid of the storm or the sea, “Oh you of little faith.” Jesus is telling us not to look at phantom evils but to know the power of good. He tells us not to rely on our own power, but that he will be with us always.
After the ghosts of Halloween come the saints of Nov. 1, those who heeded that Gospel call. These are the heroes who have gone before us, faced evil in this world and won victory. They are in our memories and in our hearts without masks or makeup.