What do you plan to be next week for Halloween: goblin, ghost, superhero, cheerleader? I have a friend who was Batman 9 years in a row as a kid, dealing with the “Joker” and the “Riddler” on his own terms, and now he is a school psychologist. It’s pretty great, isn’t it, to dress up as some form of your alter ego, walk through the neighborhood, and get candy for your efforts?
No one really knows how our current version of Halloween came to be. It didn’t earn a permanent spot on the American calendar until the early 20th century, and “one finds no mention of trick-or-treating or anything like it in published sources earlier than 1939.” (David Emery, Urban Myths) Interestingly enough, one does find many reports of unrestrained pranks and vandalism in connection with Halloween festivities from the late 1880’s on, things like outhouses turned sideways, so perhaps trick-or-treating was contrived by adults to provide an orderly alternative to juvenile mischief. (Emery) If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, I guess.
Another juxtaposition of sweet with the scary is Dia de los Muertos, beginning in Mexico and probably evolving from Aztec customs. By the 16th century the tradition of making sugar skulls and gathering in the cemetery to celebrate the saints was spreading throughout Spanish speaking cultures.
The word Halloween derives from All Hallows Eve, so our dressing up in costumes on the night before All Saints Day may borrow from a medieval custom. In those days and earlier, folks believed that on this holy night and day, the souls of the dead mingled with the souls of the living in some special and powerful way. Long before Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis, people dressed as their biggest fears on one night of the year, so as not to be controlled by them on the other 364 days. The veil between order and misrule, present and past, heaven and earth was thin on All Hallows Eve and All Saints Day, and insightful folks sought to hold all of that at once.
And to round out the celebration, the day after All Saints Day is the feast of All Souls, a holiday that we have almost completely forgotten. The distinction between the two is all but lost, but in the old days it went something like this: “On All Saints Day we remember those saints who have left a name, whose stories we know something about, like Saint Peter, Saint Paul, or Saint Mary. Then on All Soul’s Day, we remember all of the faithful departed, whether they made a mark in the world or not, the saints (who are sometimes) known to God alone, like our relatives, our friends, or the old woman across the street.” Between the two celebrations, “we come into communion with all those saints and souls who have gone before us, with all our kin, known or unknown, to whom we are related by Christ’s blood.” (Barbara Brown Taylor) Remembering all of them makes us humble and hopeful, perhaps, a little less likely to repeat the mistakes of the past and a little more likely to discover the gifts we were born to offer.
We are saints in the making. Every person that we lift up out of poverty or keep from harm’s way, every broken heart that we strengthen or help mend, every wall we break down or chasm we bridge makes the world a little more like the one that God envisioned.