Friday Flotsam: Mostly On Halloween

1. “The spirit of wickedness in high places is now so powerful and so many-headed in its incarnations that there seems nothing more to do than personally to refuse to worship any of the hydra’s heads.”
-J.R.R. Tolkien (from a letter written in late 1969)

2. Our problem with Halloween is that we miss half the story. The eve of All Hallows’ and All Souls – the days of honouring the souls in Paradise and of praying for the souls in Purgatory – is for remembering the alternative outcome: the damned souls and forces of darkness, which we do. But that’s supposed to be only to prepare ourselves to contemplate the glory of those who, under God, triumphed over these things. Which is why it makes sense to have this remembrance of Hell and its works right before All Saints: we contemplate the darkness, then with the dawn comes the celebration of its conquest, its rebuke in the form of the righteous souls reigning in glory, forever beyond its reach. And following that is the remembrance of those dead who are assured of that triumph, but are still suffering on their way to it.

Modern westerners only remember the first part: the darkness.

That’s why I like Halloween and think Catholics should celebrate it. Only, we need to remember that it’s only the preliminary and get back to focusing on the triumphal part.

3. Or, the way my (Polish) mother describes the dynamic of Halloween: “All Saints is to remember the souls in Heaven, All Souls to remember those in Purgatory. But the Irish wanted a day to remember their relatives, so…”

4. By the way, I’ve always been skeptical of the ‘Halloween = Samhain’ thing. The timeline simply doesn’t add up: All Saints’ was an informal feast from time immemorial, but it officially began in Rome in 609 celebrating the re-dedication of the Pantheon as the Church of St. Mary and All Martyrs, and it was celebrated in May. It wasn’t moved to November 1st until about 740, again to celebrate the dedication of a new chapel in St. Peter’s containing the relics of several martyrs, and the feast didn’t spread to all of Christendom for another few hundred years (these things can take a while, especially given the state of the world at the time). By the time it reached Ireland, the Irish were already among the most Christian people in Europe.

Best I’ll allow is that local folklore regarding that time of year – perhaps even including a once-pagan harvest festival – got associated with the local practice of the observance (as happens everywhere with every feast). These are the holidays of the dead and departed, so of course there will be spooky stories associated with them according to whatever local traditions connected with that subject. But certainly Irish Celtic festivals had nothing whatsoever to do with the institution of the Feast.

Besides which, most of the familiar trappings of Halloween – jack-o-lanterns, etc. – date to the 19th century and the revived enthusiasm for all things pagan and Celtic in the Anglosphere. Looking for a pagan origin to Halloween is a matter of back-dating modern developments to try to make it seem spookier.

5. It’s also a matter of the tunnel-vision created by commercialism. The Eve of All Hallows was hardly the only night of the year where local traditions spoke of ghosts and “the veil between worlds being thinner.” St. John’s Eve in June serves the same purpose for the French, St. Walpurgis Eve on April 30th for some of the Germanic peoples, while Christmas Eve was traditionally a time for ghost stories among the English (hence A Christmas Carol), just as a couple examples of many (they tend be “eves” before major feasts). But, for one reason or another we’ve fixed on Halloween as our national ‘spooky’ night and so imagine that it was always like this and give it more prominence in our conception of history than it actually had.

It’s just another example of how we children of Christendom have largely lost touch with our folklore and heritage.

6. By the way, on the subject of folklore and superstition and such, what I think a lot of moderns miss is that this is something that is believed quite independent from religion, not as an alternative religion. What we would call ‘pagan’ beliefs and practices of this kind were not regarded in that way by those who practiced them during those long ages. When the old Irish lady talked about spirits and fairies, she never imagined that it had any bearing on her devotion to Jesus; it was just part of life.

The equivalent today would be that most Christians believe in things like evolution and the various ‘just so stories’ of psychology without thinking that it has any bearing on their faith (this isn’t a slam on evolution or psychology by the way; only pointing out that most people accept these things because they are part of the culture, not because they have the means to actually judge them on their merits). There are fairies in those trees and apes in your family tree, and neither idea actually affects what you do on Sunday for most people.

This is because most people of any age or place don’t try to work out the logical implications of or reasons behind what all they believe, they simply accept and follow the general mythology of their time and place, whatever hodgepodge of contradictory ideas this results in. It’s only when someone becomes educated and strives philosophically to account for what he believes that he begins to really investigate and prune the wild garden of his mind to make an actual ‘system’ of belief.

7. Anyway, happy (early) Halloween everyone! Watch or read something spooky and have fun, then rejoice as the sun rises and all those forces of darkness wail in despair at the coming of the Hosts of Heaven in triumph.

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