Happy Halloween everyone! I have always really loved Halloween and still enjoy the decorating, seeing the children dressed up in costumes, sneaking a little of my favorite candy to eat. I have fond memories of growing up in a neighborhood that was safe and the worst that might happen is someone might paper your front trees or smash some pumpkins. It was a pretty simple time and we always had warm cider donuts and apple cider after school before we’d get dressed up in our costumes and venture out with friends or siblings and collect a bag full of candy to enjoy for days to come. And, of course, part of the fun was heading out into the darkness and feeling just a little afraid, not sure of who might pop out from behind a tree to scare us. It was also a night when we could put on masks and be someone else, even for a few hours. As a teen, yes, I loved the scary movies and the film Halloween first aired when I was in high school, but I am not really a fan of horror films, although many people are. There is something that draws us to live vicariously through terror, that allows people to experience it in this way.
Halloween or the rituals that define it predate the Christian era. For most of human history, darkness was a reality for people, especially at this time of the year and into winter. As we know, electricity and lights are a very recent invention in the span of history, and so people developed rituals to celebrate, to mark this time of year and probably to find new ways to approach the fear and terrors of the night. (History) Despite our ability to turn on the lights in the middle of a dark night, there is something about the darkness whether at 3 am or during a difficult time in our lives that is still hard to grapple with. And yet, there are gifts that may be found in such dark times if we pay attention and listen. Let us pray, O Holy One, you created the seasons and daylight and night, be with us as we enter this time of year, help us to seek out the gifts you provide; help us to be open to the learning that comes in the darkness of the night. Comfort us in our fears, be with us in times of sorrow, and open our eyes to your calm and peace in each moment of the day. Amen.
A little Halloween humor:
Where do fashionable ghosts shop for sheets? Boo-tiques.
Why do ghosts like to ride elevators? It raises their spirits.
Knock Knock! Who’s there?
Ghost. Ghost who?
Ghost stand over there and I’ll bring you some candy!
I am sure that most of you know that Halloween gets its name from All Hallows Eve, the night before All Saints Day on November 1st.
Halloween’s origins date back to an ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). The Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago, mostly in the land we now know as Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France, celebrated their new year on November 1.
And so, the last day of October marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death. The Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. They felt that the spirits came to cause trouble and damage their crops. They believed that the presence of these spirits made it easier for the Druids, or Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future. For communities whose lives were governed by the natural world, these prophecies brought them comfort during the long, dark days of winter.
Each year, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. During the celebration, they wore costumes, often made from animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes.
When the celebration was over, they would re-light their own hearth fires, which they had extinguished earlier that evening, from the sacred bonfire to bring them warmth and protection over the coming winter.
It was in the eighth century that Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a time to honor all saints. This was no coincidence. The Christians were attempting to lure people from their ancient pagan ways to follow Christianity; they wanted to somehow contain the darkness of the pagan festivals that the priests found impossible to stop. Soon, All Saints Day incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain. (History.com) As one writer explained, “Halloween is not a product of Christianity; it is a small victory for a pre-Christian spirituality that forced the colonizing Christians to accommodate it.”
Now, many centuries later, the traditions of Halloween continue in various ways and people still enjoy horror films and celebrating in the darkness. We may wonder what there is to celebrate in the darkness; some may even wish we could always live in the light, but we know that the balance of light and darkness is true in our own spiritual lives as well. In fact, those of us who live in less populated and less well-lit areas still delight in stepping out to see the wonder of the stars and the moon on a dark night. We have become so accustomed to the light that when we experience actual darkness, many struggle to figure out how to find their way.
In his piece, Loving the Darkness, Michael Austin writes, “The same is true for other kinds of darkness. As a culture, Americans have become staggeringly inept at dealing with the darkness of death. Most modern people go their entire lives without experiencing death in any but the most antiseptic, clinical environments. We lack the intimate familiarity that our ancestors had when people died in their homes, surrounded by their families. And we have abandoned the formal mourning rituals that, until just a few decades ago, helped people structure their grief after a loved one died. In an effort to push the darkness of death out of our lives, we have made ourselves unable to process the final stages of life.”
I think that our efforts to distance ourselves from death and aging within our culture may also apply to the way in which we face spiritual darkness-those times when we may feel overcome by despair or doubt, anger and jealousy, or lack of belief in the things that used to bring us comfort or meaning. These are often some of the hardest times of our lives. Saint John of the Cross spoke about this in his own life as ‘the dark night of the soul.’ As hard as it is, I believe it is important to accept that what we may consider as difficult feelings and periods of spiritual crisis are as much a part of the spiritual journey as times of ease and joy and deep faith. Much like the contrast of day and night, these are part of the larger whole of the human experience and we need them both. We need to appreciate and understand the purpose of the full spectrum of experiences in our lives so that we do not bury the learning that may come from the times when we feel most lost in the dark.
Most of us have lived long enough to have come through some dark times, and often, when we reflect back, we may appreciate the depth and meaning such experiences have brought to our lives. We may be able to better appreciate the presence of God, even when we were not fully aware of that. As Michael Austin explains, “Everyone will end up in the dark at some point in their lives. Everyone will take a wrong turn on a country road and end up somewhere with no streetlights. Everyone will experience death and depression. Everyone will experience doubt and despair. This is why Halloween is every bit as important to a mature Christian faith as Christmas or Easter. Halloween gives us a formal, ritualized space for trotting out the darkest things in our souls and treating them as things worth celebrating. It creates a space for loving the darkness. And we must learn to love and celebrate the darkness because we cannot always live in the light.”
My friends, there’s been a lot of darkness over these past couple of years; for some it’s been harder to get their bearings than for others. Perhaps the lesson from Halloween is to appreciate all of it, as hard as it is, and to trust that the Spirit of God is walking with us in both the darkness and the light and leading us to a place of comfort and safety one day soon. I hope you will indulge in your favorite candy today and delight in the children who may knock at your door. We shall not fear the terrors of the night… May we be open to what awaits us as we enter into the darkest days of the year. There are many gifts that await if we have eyes to see in the darkness.
(Loving the Darkness, by Michael Austin, October 2021)