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.

Southern Turn

In America’s ever roving commercial eye, Día de Muertos has become an extension of Halloween.  Retailers have realized that people will spend a lot on their fear, and the autumnal holidays delve into that primal territory.  Since the Day of the Dead, being a mix of indigenous Mexican religions and the Catholic celebration of All Souls’ Day, comes two days after Halloween why not blur them together with greenbacks?  So capitalist thinking goes.  While certainly not free of monied interests, the Disney/Pixar movie Coco has the virtue of addressing Día de Muertos as the separate holiday that it is.  A form of ancestor worship—a religion extremely common around the world—the thought-world of the film shares in common with Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride this idea that the afterlife is colorful, if not joyous.

I realize I’m jumping the gun here, but I just saw Coco for the first time over the weekend.  Not just a culturally sensitive treatment of an indigenous holiday, it is also a celebration of music.  In a very real sense, music is life in the film, and even the dead continue to thrive in its presence.  Again, the connection with Corpse Bride suggests itself.  The key difference, from a religionist’s point of view, is that Coco is based on, to an extent, actual religious traditions.  An irony of this is that, together with the worship of Santa Muerte, the focus on death sometimes makes the Catholic Church nervous.  Focus should be on resurrection, not death.  But what if death isn’t seen as evil?  Where is thy sting?  This can be a real challenge when your organization is offering escape from death.

The fear of death is natural enough.  It’s the ultimate unknown.  It fuels both religion and horror.  In that sense films like Coco that show a joyful aspect of the hereafter do an end-run around traditions that base their wares on ways to avoid the consequences of death.  Hell becomes a threat to be avoided—the forgotten dead in Coco face annihilation, a fate that Héctor notes comes to everyone eventually.  Eternal torment isn’t in the picture.  I have to wonder if this view doesn’t present a form of salvation that is unwelcome among rival religions.  Although Catholics don’t have the hostility toward Halloween that many Evangelicals display, there is a challenge of rival faiths here.  Stores have already begun offering this year’s Halloween wares, and increasingly among them are Day of the Dead decorations.  The holidays are quite distinct, although related, and movies like Coco suggest what we fear may be more a matter of perspective than of the decree of an angry deity.

All Hallows Eve

I can tell that I’ve been far too busy when I don’t have time to prepare for Halloween. I don’t mean commercially—running out and buying decorations and the like—but mentally. For reasons perhaps only understood by psychologists, Halloween is my favorite holiday. I love the comfort of being with my small family on Thanksgiving and Christmas, huddled inside while the cold whistles against our windows. The sense of relief at not having to go to work even though it’s a weekday, and that increasingly rare luxury of simple breathing space. Still, Halloween takes me back to a childhood with which I resonate in a way against which other holidays only vibrate in sympathy. The days are undeniable darker. My fears, I’m told, are not unfounded. I wear a mask and am free to be myself.

Commuting prevents me from getting out to see the decorations for which some neighborhoods have become notorious. The large, billowing, air-filled frights, however, are just hot air. Even the younger generation at the office, whispering among themselves that this is also their favorite holiday, decorate their cubicles in a way that’s more cute than chilling. No, I’m not a fan of gore—this is more subtle than that. Those who’ve long dwelt with existential angst are connoisseurs of dread. We know, for example, that it will be many months now before we step out into the morning light or come home from work able to see our way clearly. The shades of darkness aren’t always the same. There’s a texture to them. To prepare properly, you need time. The very commodity of which I’m being drained.

Those who know me as a mild, “uncomplicated” sort of person don’t know me. They’ve only become accustomed to the Halloween mask that I wear almost constantly now. Life can do that to you. Instead of the creepy novels which generally crowd my autumn, I’ve been spending time with the existentialists, listening to them reflect on death and its meaning. Or lack thereof. Religions, of course, hurl themselves into that void offering plans of escape. And yet in October that man who walks his dog before dawn wearing a white bathrobe sure looks like a ghost to me. And I’m standing on this street corner utterly alone as the wind blows down the avenue, chasing frightened leaves past me, sending a chill down my spine. I’m looking forward to sitting on a bus to get out of the cold. I’m complicit, I realize, in the death of Halloween.

Which Window?

October slipped in this year, and now I find myself unexpectedly in the season of ghosts, monsters, and witches. Given the number of posts on this blog about horror movies, it stands to reason that these are a few of my favorite things. The nights are longer now and since I work in a cubicle all year round, I miss the daylight from 8 to 4 on most days. Judging by the billboards along highway 22, others have noticed that Halloween’s approaching as well. One of the odd things about being on the internet myself is that I don’t spend much time web browsing. Who has time? But when a friend sent me a story on witch windows, I had to take a look.

I’ve only been to Vermont twice. Of all the New England states, it, along with Rhode Island, are kind of out of the way for the areas I tend to visit. I’ve enjoyed my time in Vermont (and Rhode Island), but there just hasn’t been much of it. The article “Witch Windows Are Still A Thing And Here’s Why They Actually Exist” by R. J. Wilson points out an architectural feature I didn’t notice during my brief Vermont visits. Confined to the Green Mountain State, for the most part, are slanted windows in line with the slope of the roof. When I saw the photos in the article my first thought was that they were for admitting more light. Vermont is a northern state and already in September days are getting a little lean on light. These windows, however, are commonly called “witch windows.” Nobody really knows why they’re called that. As the Urbo article points out, nobody really believed that witches couldn’t enter through crooked windows.

People are quick to posit supernatural explanations for mundane things. It’s one of the more charming things about the witching season. We need not believe the explanations for them to convey some kind of meaning. Ghosts, monsters, and witches survive because they provide such meaning for us. They symbolize the things against which we have to struggle. Looking for light as the nights lengthen is a very human thing to do. We often house our monsters in the dark. There is utility in taking them out in the daytime to give them a closer look. Now that October’s here, of course, there’s less daylight in which we might easily see. If I were in Vermont I think I’d want a witch window too.

Looking for Light

The one problem with Halloween is that most people suppose that when it’s over we need to wait another year for the scary stuff to come around again. Since we tend to skip from holiday to commercialized holiday, we have a capitalism-induced mindset of Halloween—brief pause for Thanksgiving—Black Friday—Christmas, spending money all along the way. Halloween, however, is a marker that stands near the beginning of half the year. The half with short days and long nights. Traditionally the holiday associated with ghost stories was Christmas, which falls near the shortest day of the year. Once the light starts creeping back, however, we tend to find reason to be optimistic that the chill can’t last forever and light follows darkness just as surely as life ends in death. All of this is prologue to say that a friend recently sent me a story about Irish witches which got me to thinking about origins once again.

The story, a piece called “Witches of Ireland,” by James Slaven, tells a few tales of Hibernian lore involving witches. As I read the article I was thinking about the origin of witches. Some of the phenomena associated with witches parallels that associated with demon possession—contortion, spitting up needles and nails, even levitating. There is a complex of ideas here that revolves around unseen forces that are categorized as evil. We tend to think the Enlightenment opened the door and shed strong sunlight into the closet, but that’s only true for half the year. The other half we’re mostly in the dark.

Pondering origins, I wonder where these associations began. We have no “histories” to tell us whence these ideas arose. Witches and demons both had, in Christianity, associations with the Devil. That connection doesn’t apply in other religions which, I suspect, is where the origin of many tales of witchcraft lie. You see, the Christian god is a jealous fellow—it says so right there in the Good Book—and displays of power over nature that most good monotheists lack will always be suspect. Perhaps we need to pay more attention to our pagan forebears.

Source: www.imagesfrombulgaria.com; perspective- and color-adjusted by Martha Forsyth (Wikimedia Commons)

Source: http://www.imagesfrombulgaria.com; perspective- and color-adjusted by Martha Forsyth (Wikimedia Commons)

These are merely nighttime thoughts, written in the dark. Already I begin to see the sun rise as I reluctantly trudge eastward across the island of Manhattan. I welcome the longer days, but somehow I strangely miss the comfort of the longer nights of yesteryear.