Leftovers

It looks like I forgot to click “publish” yesterday, so my blog post never appeared.  With apologies for doubling up, I need to complete the trilogy today.  So here goes…

Unlike All Saints Day, which, we were told, was a day of obligation, All Souls Day, today, was not.  It was kind of a leftovers day.  Ironically, it developed into Día de Muertos—the Day of the Dead—along with Halloween and All Saints.  Yes, there are many who declare, and rightly so, that Día de Muertos is something different.  It is and it isn’t.  Cultures around the world have always felt that at this point in the year something odd was going on.  The carnal summer was becoming the spiritual autumn.  Thoughts of those who’d died come back.  So it is a three-day celebration—not officially recognized in the United States (it would interfere with business, which is, as we all know, a thing not to be imagined)—has become a commercial boon.

Still, not being among the saints, I have to wonder if the leftovers—All Souls—are somehow second-class citizens in the afterlife.  Does the social stratification we experience daily here carryover to there?  The view of Heaven among the poor is generally one of comfort and equality.  Fairness, which is in very short supply down here, will finally see the end of the moral arc of the universe, to borrow from a departed sage, bend toward justice.  And sharply.  The idea is ancient and powerful.  Primates of other species don’t object to having leaders.  They do, however, reject leaders who abuse power.  And so it is that we’ve evolved beyond that.  Civilization teaches us our place.

The Day of the Dead has become commercial, along with Halloween.  Why not stretch out the profits, which, after all, come from the leftovers?  There is a capitalist vision of Heaven, you see, and it is one we see working out on earth these days.  Those with money take power and use their money to buy more power that in turn leads to more money for them.  We call it “making a living.”  Those who are wise, however, recognize something deeper in Día de Muertos.  It is the time when we welcome family home, indeed, when family becomes more important than job, or status, or power.  It is a very human, if supernatural, holiday.  All Souls, it seems, has received less than its fair share of attention.  The Day of the Dead, in its own way, warms up those leftovers.

November Novina

One of my New Testament professors was fond of saying early Christianity was exclusive so that people would want to join.  “If everybody could be a Christian,” he suggested, “why would anyone want to be?”  There is a snob appeal to such a country-club approach to religiosity (although I believe it to be false) that has somehow come to be attached to All Saints Day.  As the holiday that spawned Halloween (or so some say), All Saints seems to hold us the exclusive members of a sect that began with radical equality.  The slight was addressed in All Souls Day (tomorrow), when the rest of us might have a chance of being remembered.

There was a death in my extended family yesterday, of someone not much older than me.  I won’t reveal the personal details here, but I do ponder the coincidence of his passing so close to All Saints.  When we’re gone, we hope, people will remember our good, opposite to what Shakespeare suggested might be the case with Julius Caesar.  There are those who touch our lives for good, be it loudly or softly, and we tend to think of that good as who they were.  But sainthood?  Isn’t that a bar too high for anyone to achieve?  And if we think we’ve made it, even that very thought is enough to disqualify us.  Some sects of Christianity treat any member as a saint, but that leaves little to which to aspire.

Carlos Schwabe, Death of the Undertaker; Wikimedia Commons

For the rest of the world this marks the beginning of November—that month when cold settles in along with longer nights, but no reduced working hours.  We are approaching the holiday season, for we need some help to make it through times when loss can feel so close at hand.  The veil separating worlds—something science has tried hard to dismiss—was believed to be more permeable at this time of year.  All Saints was a bright day of upbeat music and glory, while All Souls followed in black and more somber tones.  That’s kind of like November.  I grew up, as did my departed kin, without the awareness of these holidays of transition.  Protestants sometimes miss the complexity traditional Catholicism had carefully grown.  At Nashotah House this was a day of obligation (although they all were, really), and we’d be invited to add names to be recited in mass.  I have a name or two to add this year, and I like to think anyone should be free to join.

Halloween Mood

As America becomes scarier and scarier, I appreciate the fact that I grew up loving Halloween.  I don’t know why the dark mood appeals to me—I don’t like being scared, and I certainly don’t want others to suffer.  It’s more the mood that appeals; think of it as Halloween in the abstract.  I begin to feel it in August when I walk into stores already beginning to stock their black and orange wares.  It grows stronger through September as the dark comes on noticeably earlier each day, culminating after an October of anticipation.  Unlike some consumers of horror, what I’m after is the mood.  I started reading Poe as a young person, and “The Fall of the House of Usher” remains my favorite short story.  It’s the mood.  The narrator riding his horse through the woods toward dereliction.  There’s a sublimity in it that’s hard to match.

Yes, I watch contemporary horror.  I even write books about it.  Still, it’s difficult finding others who share my sensibility concerning horror.  I don’t like the jump scares or the gore.  I’m after the mood.  Poe knew about mood—he wrote stories that maintained it throughout.  A kind of beautiful hopelessness.  It’s a feeling in the air around Halloween when it’s clear nothing is going to stop the leaves from falling and the onset of a long and lonely winter.  Writers will shiver in their garrets, allowing their thoughts to flow despite the pale sky and feeble sun that is the only hope of continued life on this isolated planet.  Halloween tells us there is a spirit world no matter what the scientific authorities say.  It’s a world you can feel, but you can’t find it rationally.

Masquerading is a theme in some of Poe’s work as well.  We, as social beings, tend to excel at it.  We hide our real feelings so that others won’t hurt us, or so as not to hurt them.  We all know the childhood feeling of putting on that Halloween mask that permits us to act as we really feel, within limits.  Even as a Fundamentalist, I knew the catharsis of masquerading.  I read Poe and I understood him in my own way.  As an Episcopalian, I saw how fear of death was hidden behind All Saints and All Souls.  Masquerading.  Halloween was the Eve of All Hallows, but it usurped the master in its own form of beautiful dereliction.  The holidays following this are more comforting and heimlich, until the solstice comes to remind us that light will return, no matter how feeble at first.  We need Halloween.

Tis a Season

halloweenI always seem to be running late. Still, I wanted to be reading a book about Halloween on Halloween. If I might be pardoned for bleeding over into All Saints’ Day, I’ll share some thoughts this November on Nicholas Rogers’ Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. Academic treatments of holidays, I fear, often suffer because of dispassion. Academics tend to emulate Spock in their writing, and I think that those who write about Halloween should really “get” Halloween. Oh, one can discourse about its quaint history in this ever so rational world, but one might just miss what the whole thing is about. To be fair, Rogers was writing his book during the trauma of 9/11. He wonders if Halloween may be fading. Nashotah House was suffering under an evangelical administration at that time, and the usual Halloween spirit was muted. Some fifteen years on it seems that Halloween earns yet more money and people admit that it’s hip to be scared.

Rogers gives a brief treatment of the early, but hidden, history of the holiday. The Celts weren’t much into writing about their festivals and invaders didn’t think much of their quotidian life to begin with. Trying to understand Halloween from modern times, piecing the puzzle together back over time, doesn’t really help much either. Treating the day in its British context, then in its American context, Rogers favors a thematic approach. His section on Halloween movies is interesting. Like most modern treatments of the holiday, his book makes comparison with el Dia de los Muertos, and the usual complaints of cultural imperialism. Maybe Halloween is just too much fun to pass up. It also means this post isn’t that outdated.

Nobody owns Halloween. It is taken as a serious holiday by some Wiccans, but liturgical Christians are far more intense about today, All Saints’ Day. It isn’t a national holiday and no national government decides the correct day for trick-or-treating. Perhaps prophetically Chris Christie cancelled Halloween the year of Hurricane Sandy, but did he really? Sitting in the dark for a few days with evenings lit by candles—some of them in Halloween holders—felt pretty spooky to me. Halloween may be a source of intellectual curiosity, but it is a holiday you either get or you don’t. October is its prelude, November is its aftermath. It is, as the Celts used to believe, when cold weather seriously begins to take over and light is a rapidly vanishing commodity. I may be a day late, but Halloween isn’t quite over yet.

Hallow’s Eve

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Halloween is finally here, and I’m on my way to work. Over the weekend I noticed youngsters about in costume, heading to a local business that was holding, apparently, some kind of ghostly do. For me it’s just another day—Halloween isn’t an official holiday in any government’s book. Business as usual. Still, I can’t think of Halloween without recalling Nashotah House. I began, and effectively ended, my academic career at Nashotah. Idyllically located in the woods, it was a seminary that knew how to celebrate Halloween well. We were expected—required, actually—to be in church for a good part of the next two days for All Saints’ and All Souls’ days. But Halloween night we were allowed to be afraid.

Gothic writers often used to focus on places like monasteries and churches for moody frights. Nashotah began its life as a monastery, but soon turned into a seminary. The stone buildings were old—for this country—and gothic in design. We had an on-campus cemetery with a bona fide black monk. Students reported seeing ghosts, and with such a small population of religiously devoted people the imagination grew like toadstools. One morning at around 5 a.m. the door handle to my apartment rattled loudly. I’m sure it was just someone trying to get into a forbidden chapel whose only access was through my rooms. Thunderstorms echoing through the kettle moraines that surrounded the Wisconsin campus could be impressive indeed. On Halloween the maintenance man drove a hayride through harvested corn fields and the cemetery where opportunistic ghouls would pop out to frighten the slow-moving, exposed riders.

Since those days Halloween has instead become just a day of work. No more the grandeur of All Saints’ Day being an actual holiday, holy day, followed closely by All Souls’. This is just another day except for the kids who can come around and get some candy if I’m not too tired to hand it out later. I suspect this is why I spend so much of October reading about monsters and ghosts and scary movies. I no longer have a Halloween to focus my energies. So here it is Halloween. It’s dark outside and I’ll be standing in that dark, waiting for a bus. When I climb off at the end of the day, I’ll be sharing the nighttime streets with children who are perhaps the only ones who celebrate holidays as they should be commemorated. Already a month ago I began noticing the Christmas displays in local stores. It was my first real scare this season.

Allhallowtide

Allhallowtide is a triduum. No, I’m not writing in tongues. Ecclesiastical language can often be foreign to the secular world, and the fact that it’s All Souls’ Day for some has me thinking about feasts that come in threes. I first heard the word “triduum” at Nashotah House. There, of course, the great spring coalition of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter made the holy triduum of required marathon chapel attendance. It was not unusual to spend a dozen hours in chapel during that stretch. Always considered less important, but perhaps far more human, was the autumnal triduum of Allhallowtide: All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween), All Hallows (All Saints, or Hallowmas), and All Souls’ Day. In Mexican tradition the three days make up the Day of the Dead. For people who live close to the economic edge of perpetual poverty, that makes perfectly good sense. Even for the liturgically literate, however, parsing the triduum of Allhallowtide takes some effort. We all know Halloween, and the title All Saints is self-explanatory. All Souls’ might require some thought.

All Souls’ commemorates the “faithful departed.” We can’t all be saints. (Well, in some traditions all Christians get to use the title, but alas, in the more Catholic world, no.) What about those who’ve died believing, but not earning a place among Ralph Vaughn Williams’ masterpiece? The ordinary, like us? All Souls’ is our day. Since the macabre is considered puerile, what with its possibilities of ghosties, and ghoulies, and one-eyed beasties, the church has continued to give a polite nod to Halloween (at Nashotah it used to be done up in great style) but doesn’t take it seriously. More evangelical denominations say it’s demonic, but in actuality, historically, it is the opposing triduum to that of the spring. Liturgical life holds an incipient balance for those who don’t take things too literally. Understanding our mythologies covers a multitude of sins.

Perhaps this chilly, rainy Allhallowtide in the northeast has me far from the hot and dry Day of the Dead, but I admire the Mexican acknowledgement that something should be done about those who’ve died never knowing affluence. Somewhere just to the north lies one of the most successful (until recent years) economies in the world. Social fragmentation, violence, and drugs (which draw big money from that self-same northern economy) bring many of our fellow North Americans to their knees at the feet of Santa Muerte. The light is fading fast at this time of year, and the wind is ripping the desiccated leaves from their skeletal branches, preparing us for the long chill that is to come. While work prevents too much investment in the liturgical year, I look with a peculiar longing over this triduum, and this soul, in any case, is grateful for a weekend to contemplate it all.

Jakub_Schikaneder_-_All_Souls'_Day

Two Swords

One of the more interesting situations to emerge from Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath was the celebration of Halloween. I know that I’ve already lost some readers right there since Halloween is a disputed holiday. Often Halloween is maligned as “Satanic,” a claim that is absolutely untrue. It may have some paganism in its roots, but then, so do most religious events and ideas. Halloween is a Christianization of various folk customs, frequently Celtic in origin, on a night when the protective wall between the living and the dead was believed to be especially thin. As adults grew more sophisticated and scientifically informed, the holiday lingered as a children’s fun day with dress-up and pranking, both normal childhood ways of playing. This neutered holiday has proved to be commercially viable as well, now supporting September-October Halloween stores at a density of about a dozen per square mile. Its success is rivaled only by Christmas.

In light (or perhaps dark) of the devastation of Sandy, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie canceled Halloween. We heard the news on our battery-operated radio, sitting in the dark. While this was one of those rare times when I think Christie was motivated by the concern of both poor and rich, I did ponder the implications of a government canceling a holiday. All Hallows’ Eve is the night before All Saints’ Day. “Hallows” is simply another—less used but more evocative—word for “Saints.” While largely secular in its present guise, Halloween is a religious holiday. My mind went back to the doctrine of Two Swords that I learned about many years ago. Originating in the papal bull Unam Sanctum, very early in the fourteenth century, the doctrine teaches that in spiritual matters the church holds the sword while in temporal matters the state holds its own sword. Who has the right to cancel a holiday?

Of course, Chris Christie has his own ways of issuing bull, but his real concern was that conditions were too dangerous for trick-or-treating. Indeed they were. On a short walk, I saw power cables dangling like electrified cobwebs on just about every block, snaking along the ground. Branches were still falling from trees. Curfews (many still in effect) were widespread. Not a good night for masked strangers to show up at your door. But as in the case of the Grinch leaning out over Whoville after he’d stolen all the trappings, Halloween came, it came just the same. What we saw on Halloween was people helping one another. No tricks (for the most part, although among the first to recover were businesses who recorded new ads to broadcast on the radio before the wind even stopped blowing), just good natured mortals helping one another, protecting others from the grim reaper. To borrow a line from Charles Schultz, “That’s what Halloween’s all about, Charlie Brown.”

Will the real Halloween raise its hand?