Night Of The Dead

Traditions: An occasional series about symbols that add meaning to our lives

Copyright © 2004 Dorian Scott Cole

Halloween is quickly approaching, and neighborhood streets will fill with children dressed as all kinds of supernatural creatures: ghosts, witches, goblins, fairies, demons, superheroes, and the walking dead. It is one of my favorite holidays, and I eagerly await the stream of children who parade to my door for candy, happily demanding, "Trick or treat."

Sadly, the world has too many real demons: dead and wicked souls lurking behind neighborhood doors. So many communities offer safer alternatives, especially for younger children, such as large Halloween parties. Parties are also good, but perhaps we are missing a time for raising awareness.

Halloween was originally known as Samhain, and then the Christianized version became known as All Saints Day, followed by the non-secular title, Halloween. The tradition, Samhain, began in Ancient Britain and Ireland as a Celtic festival at the end of summer, October 31, which was their new year. Bonfires were set on hilltops to drive away evil spirits. The souls of the dead supposedly revisited their homes, and other sinister spirits supposedly walked the earth. As the tradition evolved, the Scottish decorated turnips, and as it came to the US, people decorated pumpkins.

In Scotland, children played games to get a hint who would marry them. Traditionally US parties have included bobbing for apples, and the kissing game, Spin-The-Bottle.

The mean spirited and pranksters have used the occasion for mischief, such as tipping over outhouses (outside toilets), or setting empty houses on fire. But despite the grotesque costumes, darkness and wickedness are not the real emphasis. From the beginning it has always been a primarily positive celebration, connected to the end of the harvest season and the end of summer's hard work, and keeping life's tragedies away from the coming season. UNICEF picked up the positive children's emphasis when it began collecting funds for children through Trick-Or-Treaters.

There are too many dead walking among us:

  • Tens of thousands of people a month are losing their lives in refugee camps because of the conflict in Darfur. Ethnic cleansing by the Sudanese government is what may of the people are fleeing. Governments that don't respect life and human dignity (rights) should be restricted by humanity to pressure them to change by feeling the weight of public opinion and the corresponding actions of other's governments. The worldwide people's movements against South Africa worked in this respect. Public opinion counts, even from outside. People realized this in opposing the oppressions of the Soviet regime. Public opinion influenced the Soviets to better treat some of their people.
  • People among us die unnecessarily from diseases every day. Sometimes they die because they are unaware that they have the disease and unaware of treatment options. Sometimes they die because research into treatment for their disease is under funded. Sometimes they die because medicine and treatment are simply too expensive.
  • Sometimes people die because their minds are very sick. They don't understand the value of human life, often not even of their own. They can't or won't support themselves through legitimate channels. They can't find a purpose in life. They hurt others physically or mentally. They destroy their relationships with others. They hurt and they take drugs. Education and funding help.
  • Sometimes people lead an empty and unfulfilled life because they fear, or have been emotionally damaged, so they give up on life. Education and outreach help.

Holidays have their purposes: Christmas represents goodwill toward others and hope, family and sharing with others, typically in a religious context. It reminds us that here is hope beyond us. Thanksgiving, a US holiday, is a time of celebration, feasting and family. Halloween is a holiday geared toward the young (and those young at heart) - a celebration of coming new life and hope. With small children, it's difficult to have much meaning attached to Halloween. It is just a fun time. But like most holidays, the traditions can have a much deeper meaning for all of us.

Halloween is a time of hayrides and snuggling close with a special friend. It's a time of bonfires and roasting wieners and marshmallows. It's a time for parties, and games of Spin-The-Bottle, and bobbing for apples. It's a time for haunted houses and fright, reminding us that life is short and ugly things can steal away life from us, robbing real life from us or making us literally dead. Halloween is a time of both celebration, of hope and new life, and of raising our awareness of death walking among us. It reminds us that there is something more important to life that can be too easily stolen away by death.

It is the grotesqueness of Halloween that gets our attention. People wear costumes and masks that are deformed, gory, and represent death. They represent (symbolize) the twisted conditions that represent the fear of agony in death - any death that didn't positively affirm and fulfill life.

We often do holiday functions meaninglessly when the original roots disappear. Most of us are no longer tied to the agrarian lifestyle, so Halloween has less meaning for many of us that the hard summer work is done and the crops are harvested ; and we no longer need to build bonfires to chase away specters of death for the next year. But we still need those lines of demarcation, those moments that we set aside to celebrate and to reflect.

The bonfires, costumes, haunted houses, and Spin-The-Bottle games are symbols that point to deeper meanings in our lives. Halloween is a time that we as a society can remind people of the things that take away life, and we can give people hope for the future.

On the night of the dead, the dead walk among us for good purpose. This night can be a time to point people toward hope by raising awareness about those who walk in death's path and need help, and awareness about those things that can steal life from us. It can be a time to promote a cause that you want to promote. Perhaps candy can be exchanged for a note mentioning a cause, to raise awareness.

- Scott

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