I think Halloween is an underappreciated Holiday. Not in every way. It’s many people’s favorite, because how fun to dress up, etc. But I mean what Halloween is actually about–the stuff of life behind the Holiday that the day puts us in touch with, even if accidentally and only a little bit.
“The farther we’ve gotten from the magic and mystery of our past, the more we’ve come to need Halloween.”Paula Curan
If you’ve seen Coco or The Book of Life, you can picture the colorful festivity of Día de Muertos, Mexico’s Day of the Dead. You may not be as familiar with Samhain (pronounced “Saa-win”), the Gaelic Holiday, or Zhongyuan Jie, the Chinese Ghost Festival.
When I was a kid, we didn’t celebrate ghosts and witches and goblins and ghouls on Halloween. We talked instead about how it was “All Hallows’ Eve,” the prelude to “All Saints’ Day.” Which turned out not to be much different. A day for remembering dead people . . . which means thinking about death . . . which means facing fear . . . and the unknown . . . and danger . . . and the stories of life and of death.
Much like Halloween.
What’s it all about?
“Always the same but different . . . every age, every time. Day was always over. Night was always coming. . . . afraid . . . that the sun will never rise again . . . all the men in history staring round about as the sun rose and set. Apemen trembled. Egyptians cried laments. Greeks and Romans paraded their dead. Summer fell dead. Winter put it in the grave. A billion voices wept . . . Then, with cries of delight, ten thousand times a million men welcomed back bright summer suns which rose to burn each window with fire! . . . People vanished forever. They died, oh Lord, they died! But came back in dreams. Those dreams were called Ghosts, and frightened men in every age. . . . Night and day. Summer and winter . . . Seedtime and harvest. Life and death. That’s what Halloween is, all rolled up in one. Noon and midnight. Being born. Rolling over, playing dead like dogs . . . And getting up again, barking, racing through thousands of years of death each day and each night Halloween . . . every night, every single night dark and fearful until at last you made it and hid in cities and towns and had some rest and could get your breath. And you began to live longer and have more time, and space out the deaths and put away fear, and at last have only special days in each year when you thought of night and dawn and spring and autumn and being born and being dead. And it all adds up. Four thousand years ago, one hundred years ago, this year, one place or another, but the celebrations all the same: The Feast of Samhain, The Time of the Dead Ones, All Souls’, All Saints’, The Day of the Dead, El Dia De Muerte, All Hallows’, Halloween.”Ray Bradbury, The Halloween Tree
Once upon a time, winter was sort of a season of death, of fear. When Autumn came, you harvested the food and prepared to hibernate. Life and growth would soon be put on hold. Then the nights grew longer, the cold came, and you braced. Hibernated. Hoped. Waiting for life to come back in the spring.
And then, as Bradbury described, we as a species learned to thrive straight through the winter with cities and towns lit by electricity, warm houses, warm offices, warm cars. Freshly grown food shipped in a matter of days from the other side of the globe where the sun was still shining.
So we live longer. And we don’t have to fear death as frequently. We don’t have to fear the dark quite so much, or the seasons, or the cold. Life isn’t put on pause for several shivering months, and we aren’t reminded quite so strongly of our mortality.
But still, once a year, this season comes around . . . and we talk again about spooky things like death and fear and darkness. We keep some of the stories, some of the ghosts, some of the hauntings, some of the magic. And–most of all–we dress up as Iron Man or Pikachu and gorge ourselves on candy. So good, so fun, so absolutely worthwhile.
What of the ghost stories? People now tend not to believe in ghosts quite like people did hundreds or thousands of years ago. Or magic. Or monsters. Or omens. Or bad luck. (Actually, maybe yes–bad luck.) We understand the scary noises in the dark, we understand how dreams work, and hallucinations. We have light switches that can suddenly explain the secrets the shadows held, once upon a time.
So why do we still celebrate? What draws us in? Halloween and all its spookiness and darkness still intrigue us.
I think because we’re still mortal. And we can’t help but pay attention to the reminders of our mortality. And because we desperately need stories of darkness, because we desperately need stories of overcoming the darkness. Not for the same reasons we did a thousand years ago. For different reasons now.
We’re not likely to starve if the winter runs too long, or to get frostbite. But when January comes around, a huge number of us fall into seasonal depression. We just have different kinds of darkness that haunt us now. Less magical, more . . . . . modern.
And it’s not so much about winter, just as winter and death were never truly synonymous. Winter was just the reminder of the fear and danger and death and struggle in the cycle of life. We still have that life cycle. It looks, feels, and sounds more modern now. But we still have it. We still have the bad stuff happen. We still feel the darkness, the fear. We still worry–a lot–maybe more than people have ever worried, now that we’re all confronted every day with every story to worry about all around the globe.
There are still monsters. And we still need stories.
Stories that allow us to feel the darkness. And stories of making our way safely through the darkness to the other side. Stories to help us be brave. Stories that give us hope.
“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”Neil Gaiman
Imaginative stories of ghosts and goblins and exorcisms and aliens and witches and hauntings and spooky cabins in the woods . . . they do that. They let us feel all the dark feelings, and then let us get to the other side–usually with the story’s hero still intact.
We’ve all got the darkness, the fears, the struggles.
As we grow up and out of our imaginations, we try to turn off the feelings, deny the darkness, suppress the struggles. We can’t imagine opening up about what’s inside of us, facing our demons. We’re afraid that if we look inside, we won’t be able to handle the pains and the fears. So–in general–we decide to be grown up instead. No more feelings. No more hopes. No more dreams and magic in life. Just surviving, being responsible, and eventually dying.
And then, one day, we remember just how much meaning and magic and feeling there is in life. And we wonder why we stopped paying attention to the ghosts and fairy tales. Why we had to get so stuffy and dry.
And when that happens–we pick up a book. A fairy tale, a story about magic. Or we find a movie born out of deep imagination. Or we take a walk in the cool fall breeze and watch the red and yellow leaves swirling and remember the rather blustery day that Winnie-the-Pooh had, and remember that we were more in touch with the stuff of life when we were young.
“Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”C. S. Lewis
All of which Halloween ramblings, typed away with a Halloween wind blowing the Halloween trees outside my window, bring me to a simple thought: Life is full of magic. Really good magic, and really dark magic. And being deeply in touch with the light and the darkness, death and life, remembering courage, remembering celebrations, and feeling . . . young . . . those matter.
Alive is more alive against the backdrop of all those days of the dead.
And you’re still alive today.
Every Halloween . . . you get to remember all of this, celebrate all this, believe in all this, feel all this. You’re alive. And life has some darkness, but you are brave.