The children keep getting younger, I thought last night as I greeted tick-or-treaters in strollers and in the arms of their parents, who were reliving their own Halloween experiences as kids. A one-year-old, dressed as a bumble bee, had to be restrained from grabbing a seemingly endless helping of candy.
I doubt if many of the many folks who celebrated Halloween (not Holloween) last night had any clue about the ancient origins of the festival or even the meaning of word: All Hallows' Eve, the night (evening=eve) before Nov. 1, the feast of All Saints (or Hallows in early English) in the Catholic tradition going back to the 8th century. It is only "hollow"--and limited to silliness and candy--to those unfamiliar with what is "hallowed" (holy).
Even before that, in the folklore of pre-Christian Ireland, this time of the year was sacred, a time to celebrate the dark forces of life, to sense in the changing of the seasons that a dying of the year is taking place. So in Mexico we have the Day of the Dead, or what we in English call All Souls' Day tomorrow, honoring deceased friends and family, especially of the past year, just as today we honor those who are with God.
So Halloween, which has spread in its modern incarnation around the world, is not an American "plot" designed to sell candy or promote tooth decay or encourage children to become beggars. Its folklore origins, like its Christian heritage, remind us of our debt to the untold millions of people who have gone before us. Its solemnity is heightened by an evening festival that precedes the occasion in a light-hearted way, as we laugh at devils and ghosts. Then we are ready to be serious in honoring the saints.
Calling them saints does not mean they are officially declared to be so by the church. Robert Ellsberg's classic book, All Saints, is a wonderful collection of short pieces honoring men and women from many religious traditions who have made a difference in the world. He includes, in addition to St. Francis and the usual array of canonized notables, such people as Gandhi, M. L. King, Chief Seattle, Anne Frank, J. S. Bach, Cesar Chavez and Oskar Schindler, writers Donne and Dostoyevksy, Rabbi Heschel and Martin Buber and a few more surprising choices, like Van Gogh and Galileo.
Many people have their own favorites among the distinguished dead. But we think, too, on these "days of the dead" of all the others whose names are lost or known only to our families, including those who have been martyred or eliminated by unjust governments and lie in unmarked graves.
This, for me, is a powerful time because I remember that I am surrounded by the dead and connected to them, as the darkening days of autumn lead to winter, a kind of annual memento mori.