Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Gospel of Halloween

We are in the season of masquerade. Soon the streets will be filled with pumpkins, cats, little red devils and mighty super heroes about waist high. Many of us are afraid of Halloween, either because it has become unsafe to take our children from door to door to collect candy, or because many Christians have come to believe that there is something inherently wicked about this holiday when children dress up in masks, capes and costumes. The charge of course is that Halloween has pagan roots, which is true. What is also true is that our contemporary preoccupation about paganism sometimes drives me up a wall!

According to some people, even Christmas and Easter (or an annual celebration of any kind) is a Hellish invention to trip up the saints as they make their way toward Heaven. The source of some of this attitude towards holidays is a war against any part of our human experience that might actually be fun! But replacing elements of our life that have non-Christian sources would be next to impossible. If we really wanted to be rid of all things with pagan roots, we would have to rename the days of the week and the months of the year. Also, church steeples and the great seal of the United States would have to be eliminated. (Church steeples are rooted in the worship of – Ok, I'll say this as delicately as I can – "fertility.")

But before any of my readers get their righteous ruffles up, I'll quickly reassure you that I agree that many aspects of Halloween have become unsafe and unholy. In fact, I'll even agree that it started out unholy – before Christianity even arrived in Northern Europe. It was a very important day on the Druid calendar, among the Celtic peoples of the British Isles. When my Irish ancestors became Christians however, they did what Christians often did; they re-appropriated this festival for a new purpose. Halloween was now to be called All Saints Eve, a time to remember all the saints of God who were not honored by name on other days. (Many of the 'bigger and more famous' saints had their own appropriated day of celebration. Apparently we needed a day to honor all the 'little people!')

Anyways, the old Druid holy day got converted. What survived was our custom of dressing up.

Quite honestly, I love dressing up. Always have. I love the theater, acting, stages, props …all that stuff. So as a kid I naturally loved Halloween. Back in the ancient days of my childhood, even very conservative Christians didn't mind dressing up their children like witches because we thought there were no real witches left in the world. We were playing around with something that had been vanquished, defeated. We only started worrying about the significance of Halloween when people began to take witchcraft seriously again. Now, even Christians take it seriously – and, unfortunately, fear it. So a good fun day for children has been effectively destroyed. (It makes one wonder if there will be any childhood at all in the near future.)

Anyways, I loved Halloween. My parents bought me a Superman suit when I was in the second grade. I wore it to school under my clothes and impressed several of my schoolmates by opening my shirt to show them the famous “S" on my chest.

The most important thing about that suit was the cape. Because, as every child knows, the cape is the piece of clothing which really makes Superman SUPERMAN! If you let a boy tie a towel around his neck, you will see him instantly turn into a flying fool. He will run faster than a speeding Chihuahua. He will leap tall end tables in a single bound.

I loved it. Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, the Flash, and Iron Man - all those guys. A humble worker at The Daily Planet could turn into quasi-deity by just changing clothes in a phone booth. A humble preacher's kid from a house on the river bank could turn into the champion of justice, the guardian of the oppressed. One red piece of cloth could do that!
Children can play these types of roles openly and without shame. Adults learn to dress up and pretend a bit more subtly. By mutual agreement, we decide to allow others to play along in this ‘game’. We play without comment, because the other players return the favor. And many times, as the song says, we get lost in the masquerade. The reason children want to dress up and pretend is because that is what they see modeled by adults. Much of life will be about dressing up, pretending, and hiding out… first behind this mask and then the next. Unfortunately, few people get around to developing the person behind the mask. Indeed, some people panic when they lose their mask because they are not sure if there is anything behind it.

I once heard an Orthodox priest say, “The problem with you pastors who don’t wear vestments is that you never take yours off!” I had to think about that for a while. His point was that when we consciously put on a mask or a costume, we are complexly aware that we are playing a role that is not in all respects who we actually are. A judge wears a robe and a policeman wears a uniform because they realize that they are speaking on behalf of the law and not their own behalf.

Perhaps if we put on a mask more often, we might become more aware of our invisible masks.
Some masks are real: they reflect some role we play on behalf of others, but which require more than we are humanly able to give. The doctor’s smock, the priest’s collar, the judge’s robe – all these say to the wearer and to those who view them that the role the person is wearing is more than the person of himself or herself.

Some of our masks are false and should be discarded. The mannerisms and material objects I display in order to hide my insecurities, the continual references to academic degrees or accomplishments – these kinds of masks distort my humanity and help me hide from myself the need to develop and mature.

The saints are the people who discard false masks and who become what the real masks represent. We have all “put on Christ.” The mask is far beyond where we are when we first dress up as Christian. A saint is a person from whom the Lord rips off the “Jesus mask’, only to reveal that the person underneath has been molded by that mask and now has genuinely become what he was pretending to be.

Those are good things to think about as we approach ‘All Saints Day’ the day that replaced the night of devils and deception.

Now, if I could only fit into my old Superman costume…


Stargazer said...

Interesting...I love Halloween! Thankfully, my family does all they can to keep childhood traditions alive. I do wonder with you though about the future. Thanks for posting this.

Brandon Palma

Anonymous said...

Thank you for validating my need to still be a kid when it comes to dressing up one time out of the year!! Haloween time provided some great memories from my childhood!
Fun traditions are so important these days. Becoming someone else for one night and escaping from life for a moment can be very therapeutic when it seems like life and politics are screaming at us everyday. don't you think?

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