Back in the day, I used to give a talk on the meaning of Halloween, on the night, at the New York Open Center, when it was still downtown in SoHo. We always had standing room only in the lecture room, which was partly filled by witches, ghouls and vampires dressed for the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade that would unfold just down the street right after.
I notice, looking through old journals, that on the night of October 30, 1998, prior to taking the train to Manhattan the next day, I asked for some Halloween dreams. This is what came as soon as I closed my eyes:
I watch a beautiful woman in a flowing, gauzy white dress like a wedding dress rise from a coffin and begin to float around a dark, undefined space (like an artists' background, defined by brushstrokes rather than finished shapes). The eyes are dead. All that is there is blind appetite. She is the living dead, a hungry ghost. I avoid her.
As we approach All Hallows' Eve, a shiverish, magical, crazy night in a more than usually crazy year, I am thinking of its many meanings. It is the topsy-turvy, inside-out, upside-down time, when the past lies ahead of you and the future walks behind you, breathing on your neck. It is a night when the doors between the worlds swing open, when the dead walk among the living and the living move among the dead. As my dream of the beauty from the coffin dramatized, it is a night when you want to be able to discern who is who and what is what.
The last night of October is the start of Samhain (which is pronounced "sow-in"), the great Celtic festival when the dead walk among the living, the fires are extinguished and rekindled, the god and the goddess come together in sacred union, and as the year turns from light to dark, the seeded earth prepares to give birth again. It's a time, when the Celts knew what they were doing, to watch yourself and watch comings and goings from the barrows and mounds that are peopled by ghosts and faeries. It's a time to honor the friendly dead, and the lordly ones of the Sidhe, and to propitiate the restless dead and remember to send them off and to set or re-set very clear boundaries between the living and the hungry ghosts. It's a time to look into the future, if you dare, because linear time is stopped when the hollow hills are opened.
As Celtic scholar Marie-Louise Sjoestedt wrote, "This night belongs neither to one year or the other and is, as it were, free from temporal restraint. It seems that the whole supernatural force is attracted by the seam thus left at the point where the two years join, and gathers to invade the world of men."
If you have never learned to dream or see visions or to feel the presence of the spirits who are always about - if you have never traveled beyond the gates of death or looked into the many realms of the Otherworld - this is the time when you'll see beyond the veil all the same, because the Otherworld is going to break down the walls of the little box you call a world, and its residents are coming to call on you.
It's a time for dressing up, especially if you are going out at night, although there is likely to be much less of that in this time of pandemic. The Celts put on fright masks not to extort candy but to scare away restless spirits before they scared them. Out and about ,they carried torches to light the way, and especially to guide the dead back to where they came from when the party is over. Before Europeans discovered pumpkins in America, they carried lit candles in hollowed-out niches in turnips.
All of this was so important, and such wild, sexy, shiverish fun that the church had to do something about it. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III decided to steal the old magic by making November 1 All Saints' Day, or All Hallows Day; so the night of Samhain became All Hallows' Eve, or Halloween for short. A century before, an earlier pope had borrowed the date of the old Roman festival to propitiate the dead - the Festival of the Lemures, or Lemuralia - and renamed that All Saints' Day. But since Roman paganism had been largely suppressed, the church fathers decided to grab the glamour of the Celts, among whom the old ways are forever smoldering, like fire under peat.
Few people who celebrate or suffer Halloween today seem to know much about its history. For storekeepers and the greetings card business, it's a commercial opportunity. For TV programmers, it's a cue to schedule horror movie marathons. For kids, it's time to dress up as vampires or witches and extort candy from neighbors. My preferred way to spend Halloween is to rest quietly at home, sometimes with candles lit for my dead loved ones, and a basket of apples and hazelnuts beside them, tokens of the old festival that renews the world and cleanses the relations between the living and the dead.
Text partially adapted from The Dreamer's Book of the Dead by Robert Moss (Destiny Books)