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October 31, 2004






Halloween is one holiday Iíve never really addressed in a straightforward discursive manner. Usually Iíve written a poem, an oblique approach to an oblique occasion, but rhythm and rhyme may serve better than reason in accessing the spirit of a Day that probes the limits of identity and belief.

Or rather I should say, a Night.
Halloween is our darkest holiday, with one foot in the grave, but itís not somber like the elegiac Memorial Day. The dead of Halloween offer the thrill of horror but do not inspire mourning, so my experience in 2000 was ironic, as the holiday was consumed by my fatherís death. His story keeps surfacing in the old posts, echoing across the years, but that was his final night. He hovered through the midnight hour, then crossed another boundary, the last weíre sure of, in the early hours of November first, All Saintsí Day. That was only in keeping with his offbeat sense of timing. He was no saint, but he was a great soul.

All Souls are honored on November second, which is called the Day of the Dead in Latin America, where itís celebrated with gusto. Halloween and el Dia de los Muertos are linked by their dates, and their Christian veneer, but appear to represent two independent yet parallel traditions. On both sides of the Atlantic it was understood by the natives that this is the time of year to get in touch with the dead. Christianity has its own investment in the Mystery that lies beyond our final boundary, but it could never fully reform the pagan spirit of its converts. In fact it was enriched thereby, and the many compromises and accommodations made between the Old Religion and the new were as much a matter of spiritual necessity as of political expedience.

Traditionally, this is the time when the barriers between our everyday world and the spiritual realm are at their most permeable. Spirits pass freely between worlds; the living, the dead, and a host of strange beings that have never lived, but do not die, meet among the shadows of the Night.

This meeting may be terrifying or orgiastic (or both.) As a matter of religious practicality, it offers a chance to propitiate the inhabitants of the Other World, but itís most pious overseers are no longer conquering Christians, but New Age neo-pagans who have made of the holiday a major focus for the aspirations of alternative spirituality in the modern West. The altar is pretty much theirs: outside of a few zealous cranks, nobody in the Christian community takes Halloweenís dabbling in the dark too seriously anymore, and for America at large itís all about fun; an occasion for indulgence without remorse. Children play questionable pranks and gorge on sweets; adults drink and flirt, and that party spirit, bereft of moralizing, makes Halloween one of our most popular and vital Holidays.

Halloween is a three billion dollar industry. In the ultimate measure of secular worth it is only surpassed by the big gift-giving holidays as an economic event. Its market is expansive because it caters to separate audiences of children and adults. Bridging the gap between generations is the constant of the costume. The dressing up is not so much a matter of disguise as it is a display of our secret egos, and if the young tend towards the terrible and the marvelous, adults are apt to engage the occasion as an opportunity to disinhibit their sexual self-images. Amid the post-modern flotsam of constructed identity, the holiday seems altogether up-to-date, and its popularity is only likely to increase.

Still, we should not ignore the nostalgic pagans in their sacred groves. Their spiritual aspirations may appear as a silly costume in todayís secular world, but the power that continues to animate Halloween, however mutated, is by no means disconnected from its ancient roots, and those draw nourishment from a level of being far deeper than any contemporary mainstream religion.

Neo-paganism locates the pre-Christian roots of Halloween in the old Celtic New Year holiday of Samhain. Samhain marked the end of the yearís harvest and the preparation for Winter. It was a fire festival, when the old year was reduced to ashes and fires were relit from a single ceremonial source. Itís strange to say, but today we are closer to the Celtic spirit world than we are to such basic seasonal observations. Ghosts and witches titillate our sophisticated modern belief system, but we are truly alienated from the actualities of the Earth and the harvest, going on unseen somewhere off on some huge, spiritless corporate farm whose acreage has displaced what we used to call ďthe countryside.Ē

By putting a face on the pumpkin, and filling it with fire, Halloween reminds us that the fruits of the Earth, and the Earth itself, are indeed living entities, and the spirit in the squash is of the same order as the one in us. Death is a necessary part of Natureís cycle, but its darkness is full of illuminated souls. By recalling this ancient wisdom we propitiate their spirits, and learn to recognize ourselves among them, mingling freely and without fear.

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