Whether the pagan festival of Samain preceded or followed the Christian festival of Halloween is a question I shall leave to scholars and other such pedants. What concerns me at present is a memory of childhood which touches upon the deepest reality behind either festival, that of the life of the spirit.
Before I was a man, before I was a new man or neophyte, I was a child, which means I was closer to God and spiritual realities were unmixed with reason, since, being a boy, I had only fancy. But I was, as I imagine most were, a purely passive entity, allowing the world to permeate me just as an open window lets in fresh autumn air. Though I did not know what such things meant, I knew they meant something. Thus, when I was a boy, my older brother would torture me with making a cackling voice of a witch, and would tease me that he was going to call the witch. But I recall looking up at the window with utter horror at the thought of seeing that witch ascend to my windowsill and grin in at me. The point is, though I had no idea what invocation was, which is the principle of all prayer–and all devil worship–I was as conscious of its reality as I was of my own beating heart, which was considerable when my brother scared me.
The same reality for which I had no name, which was as real to me as a great big orange pumpkin on a porch, always materialized and made itself felt during the holidays which, in those days of my heathen youth, I simply knew as days off from school, holiness being a concept I had no words for, though, all the same, felt. Thus, there was something holy about graveyards, which I dared not enter without express business; there was something holy about the names of the deceased; there was something holy about a Christmas tree, an Easter egg, though I had no idea what, nor had any inkling as to the origins of those items which appeared intermittent during winter and spring break. Though I did not know it, my soul was magnetized by God to feel attracted to these things, not because they promised a break from school work, or candy and presents. On the contrary, the feeling to which I refer had nothing to do with any substantial thing at all, at least not the sense that it was satisfied or rested in those things themselves. Rather, I they always seemed to point me beyond them. Pumpkins, candles, skeletons, black cats, eerie houses, ghosts cut out of sheets, these were not the folly of a pagan culture gone mad. These were the artifacts of a people who were celebrating death but they forgot why. The ornaments of Halloween were, and are, to my youthful soul, sacramentals, which, when pondered upon are able to transport one to a realm beyond the veil of death to life everlasting.
Of course, I had no notion of sacrament at the time. But, funny enough, as school let out, and the interminable bus ride home concluded, as late afternoon closed in and evening approached, I felt a sense of dimensional shift, as if time became hallowed, set apart, made special and infused with meaning. What that meaning was was not reducible to the anticipation of candy. It was more. If I could give it expression as a man, which is a big if, I would say it was the excited anticipation of taking on the night, taking on death as it were, walking the streets in my homemade ninja costume and pillow case candy bag, and walking up to the homes of complete strangers to ask for candy where five-hundred years before I would have returned a prayer. Trick-or-Treat was to me as a young heathen boy a deeply ritualistic and religious ceremony, with the free candy an added bonus.
Now, as an adult converted to the Catholic faith, I strive to feel and to understand with a passive soul the meaning of this thing called Halloween. It is difficult, because I am hampered by my intellect being active and always wanting to jump in and fill the gaps, instead of letting skeletons be skeletons, the form of body deprived of life; or eerie houses one might call haunted, not with the dead so much as the living of what might of been, the happy home with light and laughter and little children running around playing in the leaves; or pumpkins, especially carved with candlelit grimacing, menacing faces, which are just gargoyles cut not from stone but living rind. Between me and the spirit world, the world of sense in itself, there falls the veil of adulthood. During my boyhood that veil did not exist, because I was not yet a man. Since my conversion, I have endeavored to see the world as I did as a child, to feel the Spirit of time and place, the Sanctifier move in and around and through me, making my very waking day a wonderful dream, tinted with that hue of meaning no intellect can touch, being a thing too holy, too precious, like the Blessed Sacrament itself which nothing but what is hallowed may hold.
Perhaps when I am older, I will have learned to let go and stop grasping for meaning. Perhaps, at the end of all my searching and trying to understand the truth of things, I will remember when I was a boy dressed up as a ninja with the plastic glow-in-the-dark sword, knocking at a stranger’s door with the hope and goodwill and faith in my fellow man. Then, remembering how to be a child, the door shall be opened, and I shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
To My Brother Who Was My Keeper Though appearing unreal to some, never to me: I thought your fantasy reality. From my windowsill I’d see your fairies, Dancing upon the golden-grassland prairies; Through that windowpane I’d hear your cackling witch, Who’d curdle my blood and make my body twitch. You sent me out to gaze at the canvas of glass, And kneel and listen to a Lady Mass, That I might mend my adulterated sight, And hear of how the Painter painted the night. Now the sun shines through the stained glass today, Bringing to life a fairytale display Of spire-alighted, splendid seraphim, Suppressing the howling Dragon’s heinous hymn. Since these appear as real as ever to me, Why do you think my reality fantasy?
A Very Short Story
While rising above the maple hills, a faithful but waning sun began to warm the sleepy town of Witnesston. With what seemed like automatic obedience to an unknown authority, the townspeople had bedecked the town with festive ornamentation the day before, in preparation for Halloween.
Living alone in a hut of a house, the middle-aged Harold Ernest had taken leave of his unwelcoming dwellings by making his way down the dark main street to the edge of town and was now returning thence. On this morning, as on every morning before dawn, Harold patronized the town’s only coffeehouse, Witnesston’s Best, before returning home to write. The habit of doing so, along with his leisurely way of life, was afforded him by a small but sufficient inheritance, which subsidized his other than lucrative profession as a freelance writer.
“What will it be, Harry?” asked Fred Barnes, the coffeehouse’s owner and tender. “But why ask you questions I know the answers to? One dark-roast coming up,” and smartly arose from his work to fetch some freshly brewed coffee.
“Thank you, Fred,” Harold sighed, after closing the door behind him, taking himself to the only table he ever knew in the place. “Am I your first?” he asked in a rehearsed manner, as the question was almost answered before he asked.
“No one rises before you, Harry,” Fred said, pouring coffee into a cup. “You make the birds look bad.”
Harold, unconsciously cringing at the alliterative phrase, looked out on the morning street, wondering whether today would be the day the little town of Witnesston would wake up. He saw from where he sat a motley assortment of decorations, which had, he thought, been thrown up at once in the night, by common adherence to an unwritten ordinance. With the increasing brilliance of the morning light, he began to see from the coffeehouse window pale skeletons dangling from lampposts here and there, carved pumpkins loitering upon stoops, and messy spiderwebs adorning doors, from threshold to lintel, amidst the falling maple leaves. No one was yet awake.
“Isn’t it spooky out there?” Barnes giddily inquired, handing Harold his cup of coffee.
“As compared with where I just came, it is a senseless parody,” Harold replied in a somber calm, while accepting the cup halfheartedly.
“Harold, you are above us all,” returned Fred. “Yet, I can’t help pitying you,” and went back behind the counter to continue wrapping the chocolate candies he had been working on when his patron entered.
While drinking his coffee at table, Harold observed Barnes from a distance. Thin and white, Barnes’ hair was neatly combed back. The aged man wore a red and white candy-striped apron around his pleasantly fat frame. The comedic contrast between the frivolous garment and stately styled hair gave Harold a moment for mirth; but, recollecting himself, he instead peered back out the window at the grotesque street.
“This town is going to hell in a handbag!” shot forth Harold out of the quiet coffeehouse. “Rather, a trick-or-treat bag!” he added. “Look at the pomp and pleasure. Look at the hanged figures, wasted gourds, and cobwebbing! Childish frenzy, I say. Death has them all by the throat; yet they throw a party in mockery of the fact.” Harold had let his coffee go to his head, for he was not used to speaking thus, at least not when their was an audience. Barnes remained behind the counter during the outburst, but soon made his way to Harold, an ice-water in hand.
“Drink this,” Barnes insisted, handing Harold the glass. “It will dilute the boldness. The first pot I make is always the boldest.” Harold took the glass of water and placed it down beside the drained coffee cup without a word.
“Am I alone here?” Harold asked, disarmed by the polite gesture of his host.
“Am I not here?” asked Barnes in like tone, sitting down across the table from Harold.
“Am I alone in thinking that all of Witnesston is asleep, that the town displays death, celebrates death, because it does not think about what it means to die?” clarified Harold.
“I suppose you know what it means to die?” Barnes retorted somewhat flippantly.
“I know the cold of a gravestone. I know the irreconcilability of pumpkins and skeletons.”
“The street is enchanting,” replied Barnes, gazing out the window. “We really outdid ourselves this year.” Vexed by the simplicity of his host, Harold began to rise to leave, but stopped.
“Do you not fear death, Mr. Barnes?” asked Harold solemnly, himself in between two worlds, sitting and standing.
“I fear you,” said Barnes with greater solemnity, his blue eyes trained now on his motionless guest. For a long moment, the men remained in perfect silence, Barnes seated, Harold suspended.
“May I have a candy?” Harold asked with a smile, and began to sit.