Happy New Year! I know the new year started recently during the Jewish high holy days, and earlier than that at the end of February when the Chinese started theirs, and earlier than that on January 1st. It turns out the year can start almost any time and I don’t mind it starting over and over. As harvest season ends for us in the Northern Hemisphere, Halloween makes as good of a time to end and start the years as any other.
Halloween turns out to gather customs from all over the world, mixed together and represented to us via pumpkins, costumes, graveyards, and parties. Let’s see how some of these strands serve both our religious tradition and our relationship with death and birth, past and future.
No one owns Halloween, while many use and celebrate it.
The Romans celebrated a day of the dead back in A.D. 43 and bobbed for apples at the Feast of Palermo back then. The Gaelicks used to use Samhain to mark the end of summer and the start of winter. Similarly, the Britons celebrated Calen Gaeaf, a sort of Celtic New Year. The harvest and the departed were celebrated with bon fires, eating, and parties. The term Halloween comes from All Hallowed’s Eve, a church rite honoring All Saint’s Day, for the saints who didn’t already have a day dedicated to them. It was assigned to November 1st around the year 800, having persisted earlier as All Martyr’s Day, May 13th, since 609. Even more inclusive, an All Soul’s Day, devised by the monks in Cluny, celebrates all those faithful not yet in heaven, those stuck in a temporary Purgatory. They intended it for those of their order who had died during the year, but was later enlarged to include all the faithful awaiting entry into heaven. Whether this includes the Chinese I don’t know, but they have Teng Chieh, a day to remember the dead and help move them to heaven. Even India has something like it, for in late September they celebrate the Mahalaya Ritual from the Mahabharata, dwelling on the need for good food, not just gold and jewels, as essential for a heavenly life. Pumpkins come from old stingy, drunken Jack, who was “too mean for heaven” but who had “tricked the devil” too much to warrant hell. The Czechs take it seriously, visiting their graveyards to tend them and remember the dead. In Germany, they hide their knives so as to not accidentally cut a visiting dead spirit. Back in Scotland, people wore masks to fool the visiting dead and lead them out of town.
This weekend brings all these customs together: a change of season shown in blazing gold, a gathering of the crops, a celebration of food, a time to pray for the benefit of the departed or to meet them again, the wearing of costumes, and an excuse to party. The trick or treating, the fact of death, the impending chill of a dark winter, the knowing that all souls like fun and feasting, yet face fear and loss – all these we celebrate today. (This also reminds us how hard it is to have worldwide holidays. Halloween marks the end of summer and start of winter only for us in the northern hemisphere; those in the south are just entering their summer. We all get our turn.)
The costuming has evolved from copying the dead to scare them to copying any sort of identity we might like to wear for a night. There are a lot of sexy nurses on the streets this weekend, along with priests, ghouls, cowboys, clowns, wizards, and various animals. Behind a mask we live a new identity – heroic, scary, sexy, or funny. As a community we get weird and rowdy. We get to play dead and then wipe off the makeup and go on living.
This is all light and easy, celebrating the end of summer and of life, making peace with change, looking into fear for the fun of it. The season changes; life ends. Whether this is abstract and amusing or all too real and dismal depends on whether we’re ready for winter and at terms with death or not. The rains are here but my firewood isn’t. I’ll have to scurry in the cool mist if I’m to be warm in the icy fog. I haven’t lost any close one to death this last year, but I could have, and I might later.
A couple of elements in this speak to our religious heritage. One sees, yet again, how deliberately the Roman Church put its religious agenda on the festivals of the local people. It made use of existing gatherings to include their new names and stories. The second is to see how a narrow, exclusive approach as to who is worthy was expanded from martyrs to saints to faithful souls to all souls, a very Universalist progression.
But mostly, Halloween is our yearly nod to death. We toy with it, laugh at it, dress up like it, and come to terms with it. In Latin cultures the Day of the Dead goes on for days. They make it their companion, a guest at the table. The Celts and Germans welcome visits from departed ancestors, be they friendly or troublesome (depending on whom that ancestor was). The veil between the realm of the living and dead is believed to be thin at this time. You and the dead can contact each other. Better make your peace.
I’ve had the fortune to look death in the raw face many, many times. I worked at a funeral home, attended and drove an ambulance, been with the dying as a pastor, and conducted numerous memorial services. Death is a part of life for me. It isn’t some stranger, hidden behind antiseptic walls, bedded in satin sheets. I know the sight, smell, and touch of it. I know the gut-retching grief of it. I haven’t been protected from it, had it hidden from me. I’m like a lot of humans who haven’t had the hospital or mortuary keep it safely sanitized and remote. I can relate to those cultures that bury their own dead, that visit the crypt, that get out the bones, that call up the ghosts.
At first, we welcome back the recently departed with great grief and love. But after many years of this, the power of the grief has faded. The dearly departed are far fewer than all who have died. If we’re in a culture that celebrates many generations back, all we really get is a few stories and a sense that we’ll one day be as unimportant as these foreign bones of forgotten ancestors. Our importance recedes quickly in time and space around us. We take care of our circle and they care for us. Beyond that, who cares? Why care?
Our ancestors know the stars will keep on spinning just about like they do whether we notice and enjoy them or not. Our little lives matter only locally. If our ancestors could speak I suspect they’d want us to live nobly but well. To bring care and enjoyment in is our prerogative. Our little circle, for our limited time – this is where we live and die. We should be involved in creating a sustainable culture. We should treat others well rather than just indulge in our endless pleasures. We should treat ourselves well rather than judgmentally or demandingly. We can’t go back and undo what we did and do it better. We can only speak across the thin veil to express our gratitude and apology and resolve to live fully and honorably from here out. Perhaps you could make a pact with your lost loved ones now.
I’m far enough from my parent’s deaths to speculate that they might be in the invisible ethers watching us now. How human to fervently wish they were. How important it would be to tell them each “Thank you.” How vital it would be to ask questions of their lives and about our ancestors. How dearly I would love to say “I love you.”
Perhaps you have parents, ancestors, friends and lovers you’d like to invite to the ethers here, just above our heads, or here, just inside our hearts. Let’s invite them to our Sabbath gathering, here, when the veil is so thin.
Byrl Atha Carrier, Alice Sarah Franklin Beckwith Carrier, Vasavada, Aunt Mary, Uncles Johnny and Tom, cousins Dave and Dan, come visit. Harry Gallatin, Harry Mea, Ann Blokker, Gail Durson – come to fellowship again! Call out the names of those you’d like to see again. The veil is thin. Bring them near by using their names and opening your hearts. (Congregants call out the names of those they wish to honor and invite.)
Of course, if we look through the veil to invite in those we love and miss we also bring here those we have forgotten or would like to forget. We open the veil for the rascals and difficult. Our ghosts might want something. If we’re to be Universalists, expecting all to be in heaven, we’ll have to put up with a crowded situation stuffed with strangers and ne’er-do-wells. We might talk with Emerson if we can get past all his detractors. For every Cleopatra there’s a million nobody slaves. For every Jesus, ten million sinners. We get lots of dull serfs before contacting any Voltairs or Darwins. Larger than that, we have all of Africa and Asia and South America to bring in, and not just moderns, but natives galore.
Itchy tai tai oh nu wah
Oh wah nikka, Oh wah nikka
Hey, hey! Hey, hey! Oh nu wah.
(Calling the natives to come dance with us.)
If our universalism goes beyond humans, we’ve eons of animals to bring round. My, how full it is! Death keeps earth from being too crowded.
If there is universal salvation and we’ll all meet them all, perhaps we’d better get used to it bit by bit on Halloween. Just as we exercise our universalism by being open to any soul we encounter in life, we stretch it as well in the afterlife. If we can open our heart up to both huge categories, with all the inherent challenges, we can get very wise and compassionate. The little life-long tussles we may have had with a parent or other loved one seems so trite compared to the core person. We ask pardon or grant forgiveness. We forget about the big issues we had and dwell in the deeper feelings we also had but couldn’t access. We glimpse that the fear of death we have is one they once had. They went through it. So will we. Lazarus was raised once, not eternally. Just as grief relates us to the human condition, so does the avoided certainty of our own death keep us humble.
The human condition has a wide array of souls dealing with the varied challenges of life – the turning of the seasons, the faces of the scary, odd, and goofy, the irreversibility of time, the worthiness of all souls – these we celebrate raucously, tenderly, and communally. All the bright and dark faces we have within us, all the characters alive and departed, all the grief and all the relief – these we include, affirm, and celebrate this day that reminds us – all are hallowed.
Reverend Brad Carrier
For the UU’s of Grants Pass
Grants Pass, Oregon
© November 1, 2009