VIEW FROM THE PEW
Seeking a text that would set the tone for a column this month, I found this: “People can expect gruesome scenes, horrifying sights, gory details and startling scares.”
It’s clearly not biblical text, although ours and other religions could promise those possibilities in their teachings or their history. Nor is it from the barrage of endless commentary about the Nov. 8 test of citizenship we face, though it is a pretty mild recap of current events.
Nope, that was just a little Halloween hype about one of the myriad events planned for the wholly secular holiday at the end of this month which morphed from the holy days that begin the month of November. Dozens of haunted houses, ghost storytelling tours, costume contests and community fund-raising festivities were listed in the Oct. 9 roundup in the daily newspaper. They promise to give all comers a really good scare … and a satisfying opportunity to display their fantasies or fears by wearing a costume or a mask in public.
How could your thoughts not turn to Halloween for the past, what, three months? The stores are dripping in decorations and cliche costumes; bagged treats have been aging in place since August.
Recent experiences sent my thoughts turning to the holiday: the view of a white witch with skirt twirling in the breeze that cheers me daily, a mischievous story about a guinea pig that is memorialized on an ancient Catholic church wall.
I appreciate them as leavening for the more somber frame of mind in which we remember the dead on All Saints and All Souls days. When I was religion writer for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, now a ghost of its former self, I always felt duty-bound to round up various faith groups’ plans for Halloween and use it as a teaching moment about the original religious context. There were the mainline Christian organizations who celebrated Halloween as a cheery family occasion and excuse for treats and fun. And there were some fundamentalists who renamed it “fall festival” and set costume limits for Biblical characters and forbade pagan stuff like witches, ghosts and zombies. I remember a former Unitarian Church pastor and his team who pulled out all the stops and rolled out the skeleton imagery each year to celebrate “Dia de los Muertos” — Day of the Dead — which I took as a statement about their church acceptance of all faiths, except for the years when I recognized it as somewhat of a mockery of others’ beliefs.
If our Catholic education took root in our mind and soul, we don’t get all warped about celebrating Halloween. We affirm our belief in the resurrection of the dead by praying for them, and asking their intercession and honoring them. The timing of Nov. 1 and 2 has various reasons, including the evangelizing wisdom of the church to weave Christianity into the cultures of different people. Anyone living in a colder climate knows how thoughts can turn to death as they watch crops and flowers wither and leaves fall off trees. Harvest time in autumn was a time to honor the dead in many ethnic traditions. A wise pope in the 9th Century decided to fit the church’s veneration of saints and martyrs to the harvest festival season of “samhain” that was part of the Celtic culture of Ireland and Britain. To find out who he was and what those Gaelic pagans did, go forth and Google. I find this all a lot more fun to read than stories about the ghosts that haunt Moiliili and Chinatown.
Another blend of Christianity and ancient culture is “Dia de los Muertos,” which is a national holiday in Mexico celebrated grandly with festivals and parades. Rooted in Aztec culture centuries before the Spanish missionaries arrived, it’s now a time to honor dead kinfolk by decorating graves and setting up home altars loaded with gifts of their favorite foods. Children in that culture will receive sugar skulls as treats.
The Day of the Dead will be celebrated at St. John the Baptist Church, the parish home for many local Hispanic people, at a 7 p.m. Mass Nov. 2. Families of people who died in the past year will remember them with candles on a special altar.
Living in Hawaii, we know we share the belief in honoring the dead with many cultures and faiths: Hawaiians with their reverence for the iwi of ancestors, Japanese Buddhists with Obon season to welcome back the dead, the Chinese tradition of gravesite visits and offerings at Ching Ming.
With All Saints Day and All Souls Day occurring in the middle of the week, and now that Nov. 1 isn’t the holy day of obligation that it once was, I don’t guess we’ll gather that day to sing “When the Saints Go Marching In.” But the spirit of “all hallows” is woven into our Catholic coat of many cultures, and it transcends the one short season. We mark it next month by listing those we mourn in the book of the dead in each parish church. But we celebrate their lives, and our continuing connection with each other in the Body of Christ, and our belief in the resurrection, all year, every year, time without end.
The kids in my family and their parents made a Halloween tradition of visiting a haunted house with a family of friends. It was considered terrific fun if they got well and truly scared by the dark, the noise, the sudden surprise of an awful apparition, heart-pumping, screaming kind of scared. It had to be experienced en masse; I screamed, you screamed, even the adults screamed, we all lived to tell about it.
Isn’t that a profound experience to have? What would you call it, a metaphor for life in these scary times? Or should we just get over the heavy interpretation of it all and accept that we need to celebrate stuff. Oops, I can’t round this up without getting back to the guinea pig, and the wind-whipped witch, remember them?
I was mulling over the history of Halloween one recent day when an acquaintance told about his extreme vacation hiking in the Andes at Macchu Picchu. Knowing I’m Catholic, he had a little twinkle in his eye as he described a visit to the Cusco City Cathedral, brilliant with the art by Inca Indians dating back 300 years. There is a depiction of the Last Supper with Jesus and the apostles gathered at table with a platter of roasted rodent — which is still a Peruvian foodies favorite, he tells me. Instead of being outraged, as he might have expected, it was grounds for a great guffaw. Talk about the church assimilating cultural beliefs! Here’s a toast to the clergymen down through the centuries who had the good sense not to meddle with the painting. It and other Inca art has put the cathedral on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.
As for my favorite witch, well she’s a memorial of sorts for me. She hangs over the front entrance to the house next door, a door that has been mostly shut for many years as two generations of neighbors aged and became ill and seldom left the house. After the last of that family died earlier this year, the realtor told me that some people would be leery of moving into a house where someone had died.
Free of haunts and fears, a young family moved in just weeks ago. Children laughing, wrangling and hollering have lifted the silence from the house.
The witch in the white swirling skirt proclaims there are little girls twirling inside. It’s not alone, Halloween decorations abound and are a harbinger of Christmas paraphernalia to come.
With the first sight of small kids at this end of the street in many years, we are already into the spirit of the season, celebrating that after death, life does go on and it’s okay to be happy about it.