By Frank Wessling
A strange, mixed up celebration of spirit is coming on the calendar. Halloween, with its themes of ghosts and goblins and witches and zombies and costumed little “trick or treat” beggars at the door, comes around at the close of October.
The television schedule began featuring horror stories and black magic early this month, and all around we hear more frequent references to “holloween.” Is that pronunciation accidental, with a more familiar “hollow” replacing the exotic “hallow” because we’re simply lazy in speech? That probably explains it because even the pop-up stores that sell Halloween merchandise spell the word correctly.
Still, the celebration itself is being effectively hollowed out as its scary-ghostly-fun side overwhelms the religious spirit of reverent connection between the living and the dead. The latter, after all, is what gives the day its name.
How many Americans know that Halloween is a contraction of All Hallows Eve, and that hallow itself is a word which shares its meaning with holy? The eve is hallowed, or holy, because it’s the night preceding the joint religious feasts of All Saints and All Souls Day, Nov. 1 and 2, when Christians remember and honor the dead.
Relations between life and death, the living and the dead, are mysterious – and a world where we can’t feel in control. It holds great fascination, though, so we dance around it with rituals, trying to keep fear of the unknown behind us. Or, we turn the rituals into fun and avoid the mystery of death.
In Mexico and across much of Latin America there is more attachment to rituals of connection with the dead. Families bring food to cemeteries and gather for feasting on the graves of loved ones. Men in the Mayan villages of Guatemala compete in kite flying contests on All Saints Day to see whose kite can reach highest in the sky and closest to the souls of the dead.
The Church has made All Saints Day a holy day in the hope that all of us will take some time to reflect on how we connect with those souls. We profess belief in a communion of saints, a mystical body linking members now living with those who have preceded us into full union with God. Halloween is a good time to think about where we’re going: not only to a grave but beyond.
One origin story for today’s trick-or-treating at Halloween is that it began centuries ago with “souling” on that night in places across Britain. Children, especially from poor families, went door to door seeking small cakes and other food. In return they promised to pray for the souls of the dead from that home.
Prayer for the holy souls rather than “tricks.” It’s unlikely that we will see a return to that practice on Halloween, but we should keep it in mind: anything to keep the time and our memories hallowed, holy, rather than hollow.