Like most of our holidays, Halloween is a syncretism of Christian and pagan practices. Samhain is the Celtic celebration of the end of the harvest, and widely seen as the Celtic New Year. Many of our Halloween practices derive from the practices of Celtic celebrations. This was seen as a night when the boundaries between the material and spiritual worlds grew thin, and spirits of the dead would return and visit the living. People would “guise” and dress up in costume so as to confuse the souls who returned. (So if you wonder who to blame for sexy skeleton costumes, I suppose you could go all the way back to the Celts.) The Christian church likely co-opted Samhain practices in order to help speed the conversion of Celtic culture to Christianity, and the feasts of All Saints and All Souls were set to correspond with Samhain. On these two feast days, Christians were called to commemorate and revere all the saints martyred for the faith and every other believer who had died. Candles were lit in memory of deceased relatives and friends; graveyards were decorated; prayers of intercession and thanksgiving were offered in honor of ancestors.
Now, for this Baptist minister from East Tennessee, most of this stuff is nonsense. I have no reference for the reverence of saints beyond recognizing a few of them as characters with enough historical significance to attach their names to schools and hospitals. Unless you count that one kid I witnessed getting a wedgie on the bus in seventh grade for wearing a True Love Waits t-shirt, I don’t know anyone who has been martyred for their faith. And I don’t believe in spirits. (Unless you mean the kind brewed in Belgium, in which case I am quite devout.)
Despite my mainline Protestant heritage and committed attitudes of scientism, I must admit that like the Celts and ancient Christians before me, I experience this season of the year to be a liminal time. Perhaps it is the changing of the weather, or the transition of the leaves on the trees. Our agricultural ancestors certainly honored this moment as the liminal transition between the finish of harvest and the oncoming winter. There is a crackle in the air that prickles my skin and gives me the impression that the existential atmosphere around me is thinner than usual. Colors pop with a bit more vividness in my peripheral vision. My sense of smell sharpens and discerns the underlying fragrant notes of cinnamon, pumpkin, smoke, and dying leaves. The beads of sweat that pop up on my brow in the autumn sun do so with a prickliness that undercuts the heat and brings me into my body with more fullness and vigor than the heat of summer could ever do.
And I remember my brother. I think of him often, of course, but never as often as I do this time of year. He’s the closest thing I have to a saint. Maybe it’s the weather, the season, or the thinness of the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead. Or maybe it’s because his birthday is in October and his cancer was diagnosed in October and I still, seventeen years after his death, associate the sensations of fall with the memories of his radiation treatments and the dawning awareness that the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead had always been perilously thin.
Yesterday, my daughter wore her shark costume to school and got sand all over its fins. She was glad to see our jack-o-lantern was still on our front step when she got home. She forgot to ask for a piece of candy after dinner. She was very disappointed that we had no trick-or-treaters to whom she could give candy. She fought bedtime with a vengeance. Through all of this, I thought of my brother. I thought of him because I remembered our Halloweens as children. I thought of him because he liked handing out candy more than trick-or-treating. I thought of him because he could be unbelievably stubborn. I thought of him because I named my daughter after him and I said her name – and therefore his – a lot last night.
Of course, I say her name a lot every day. I don’t necessarily remember my brother in vivid detail every time I say her name. She is, after all, a separate person for whom I have a completely different kind of responsibility. But she stands as a living, breathing, embodied Hallowmas all year long. My brother wasn’t a saint; he was a kid like a lot of kids. He could be whiny and difficult. He threw fits when he didn’t get his way. He tattled on me a lot. He was picky about what he ate and quickly grew tired of his toys. Hmm… my daughter is like that, too.
My brother was also deeply kind and compassionate and hurt when other people hurt. He had an easily triggered laugh and a silly sense of humor. He loved to play and explore. He was smart and enjoyed to learn. He was fearlessly affectionate and lavish with his love. Guess what? My daughter is like that, too.
My kid is a kid like a lot of kids. She’s a kid like her uncle and, well, a kid like her father and her mother. That’s what our kids do, isn’t it? They live our legacies right in front of our eyes, for better or worse, little tiny spirits from the past wreaking havoc on our world in the thinnest of places, provoking us into all kinds of masks and guises in an attempt to guard ourselves. No ritual or celebration has put me in a liminal space quite like being a parent. The harvest is always just finished and yet just beginning and the past dwells with the future and the night is mixed with chills and thrills and the strange combination of fun and terror.
When my little ghoul – I’m sorry, my little girl – gets wild and unruly and pushes me against the thinnest of spaces, I want to remember to be thankful. To honor her ancestors and the ways they show up in my life and continue to dwell with me and challenge me to be aware of the prickly liminality of our lives. There is a sweetness to learning to live in that existential intersection of yesterday and today, life and death, spiritual and material. No one shows us this truth quite as clearly as our own children.