It has been said that Halloween is a celebration of our fears. Perhaps it is not wholly that, but certainly that is an aspect. Fear was a part of the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain, occurring at the cross-quarter between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, the same time as we celebrate Halloween. Partly a harvest celebration, Samhain also included the belief that at this time the division between the spirit world and the world of the physically living was weakened. Through the thinned veil, spirits of the dead and spirits of non-human origin (e.g., fairies) could enter. Although some of those spirits might be benign, others were feared for hostile or mischievous intentions. Two of the customs surrounding this belief were the wearing of costumes so as to not be recognized by the spirits and the burning of candles to scare them away. Later in the period, turnips were hollowed out, carved, and a burning coal was put inside so that the light could be carried with a traveler. This is the forerunner of our jack-o-lanterns.
During the second half of the cross-quarter, the period of darkness is lengthening, and the growing season concludes. The cold season of winter is approaching, during which survival depends upon the harvest and what can be preserved from it. The waning light and approaching cold were taken seriously, and an abundant harvest was thankfully welcomed. We have moved the harvest celebration to Thanksgiving, but some of the ancient Samhain customs certainly sound familiar. Another change is that we no longer call the celebration Samhain. The early Church in Britain attempted to negate the Druidic and pagan origins by taking the dates of Samhain (Oct 31-November 1) and changing the celebration on November 1 to All Saints Day, honoring the ascended Christian dead. The evening before (Oct.31) was re-named All Hallows Eve, or Halloween.
The twin themes of celebration and fear remain with us in modern times. For most children, the occasion is eagerly anticipated. Children dress in costume not to hide from spirits, but to appear frightening or spooky themselves, or for recognition of their creativity. (In Mexico, the spirits of one’s honored ancestors are recognized, and masks and costumes to that effect are made.) Households stock up on treats to be distributed, and children in their disguises traipse happily from door to door demanding treats.
So where is the fear? Children may try to be scary, and adults may fear retribution (mostly from adolescent tricksters) if suitable treats (mostly candy) are not provided. Horror movies prevail on TV but are certainly not shunned by most audiences. We seem to be no longer truly frightened by influences from “the other side”, or even apprehensive about tricks played on Halloween. Could it be that our fears have settled inside us?
Now, as the days shorten and the warm, energetic season of summer yields to approaching winter, it is a good time to look at what we fear. Each of us has personal fears, some more visible than others. Many of our fears are those of inadequacy in some form; some are nightmares of abuse or assault; others are terrors of the dark, closed spaces, the vastness of open areas, or heights. Fears may also be outer-oriented, such as fears of war, political oppression, climate change, earthquakes or other natural disasters. Whatever it is, each of us has something to which to attach our fear. I postulate that this multitude of fears has a single origin – the fear of death as defined by massive personal loss and the extinction of our identity.
Halloween is a good time to explore our fears and discover either their ephemeral nature or their reality as events that can be dealt with. Nature designed winter as a time of rest, reflection and renewal. What better place to start?
We need to look at what the children have done with Halloween. What was once fearsome and spooky is now an eagerly anticipated time of joy. We, too, can face our fears and doubts, recognize and confront them, and turn them into pointers towards joy.