I will confess that Halloween is my favorite holiday of the year. The celebration of fall, the enthusiastic “yes!” to creativity, spooky decorations and movies, candles, jack-o-lanterns. It is a holiday that spoke to me when I was 5 and would speak to me if I lived to see 95.
But Halloween also reveals some fundamental truths about how we handle fear and the masks that we wear. Why do we need a dose of ghouls, goblins, Thomas-the-Tank engines, or other fun costumes this time of year? Isn’t reality scary enough?
Halloween has deeply religious roots, but not the kind that folks mean when they say religious. When people use the term “religious” in our culture, they often mean Christian, but Halloween comes to us from a time older than organized religion, marking the transfer from summer and months of plenty to winter and the months of need.
It is the natural time for herdspeople to take count of their stocks, move cattle to other locations, and figure out how to make it through the winter. To mark this occasion, they drank, built bonfires, and dressed as the spirits of the dead or other beasts.
It was a sacred time, but the Puritans and other puritanical spirits in Christianity probably wouldn’t have thought so. Halloween gets its big push in America not through the fact that it comes directly before All Saints Day, but for the fact that Irish immigrants brought their traditions with them en masse in the 19th century, bringing with them the idea of Samhain merged with the religious undertones of All Hallows Eve. In fact, the reason that All Saints Day falls on November 1 was because of shrewd Pope Gregory who knew that both Germanic and Gaelic pagans commemorated the dead at the start of winter and wanted to Christianize that remembrance.
So, Halloween has always wrestled in some way with something we all have to face and that can terrify us – death. That’s the real scary thing, and in this season, we dive down deeper into understanding the fact that no one makes it out of this life alive, and yet the lives we live are filled with wonder and glory. In short, we are all vulnerable in the most ultimate sense, and that renders this time of year uniquely sacred, especially in the time of COIVD-19.
There is a vulnerability to Halloween that is not just about playing around with death, decay, and fearful beasts. You may dress up as something that you truly love, or you may reveal your true self to other people on Halloween, because you might feel like all the other days of the year you’re not allowed to do so.
What makes Halloween so fun and accessible, even with all the scary subject matter, is that it is really a shared practice of vulnerability. Yes, you could make fun of someone’s homemade costume, make fun of the fact that they like a different hobby than you; you could tell someone something hurtful; but I can almost guarantee that you won’t. You won’t –not just because it’s rude, but because it goes against the shared ethos of vulnerability and creativity that form the bedrock of any Halloween event.
Part of the excitement of Halloween is that we get to pick the mask we wear. We can be anything, and that anything is of our own choosing. My 2-year-old declared that she wanted to be a spider this year, and so we are working to be flies and webs to accompany her creative impulse.
So often, though, people are forced into wearing a mask that they do not want to wear. This is especially true with gender and sexuality, where LGBTQ+ people have been forced to elide a crucial part of themselves in order to be accepted, but it can be any number of less integral parts of our lives that we are forced to cover up or hide.
For instance, before Stranger Things premiered, Dungeons and Dragons used to be hobby that you would hide from others, because it was seen as too nerdy or geeky. Now that those values are ascendant in our culture, those hobbies are more mainstream, but previously you might have to hide that part of yourself.
So, choose a mask that you want to wear, not what societal forces make you pick. Practice vulnerability, and have fun, because fun is sacred. But also consider some of the more profound aspects of this time of year. Reality may seem pretty scary, and Halloween might have to be celebrated in a socially-distanced way this year, but there is plenty to ponder about the masks we wear. Let’s continue our commitment to making Evanston a place where people can feel free to be themselves, and where everyone feels affirmed in their identities. Happy Halloween!
Reverend Woolf is Senior Minister at Lake Street Church of Evanston.