Ever since I was a kid I’ve felt like a freak, a weirdo, an outsider — despite being born to an array of privileges which would seem to assure my status as an insider. Especially as a young adult I wanted to reject that status and embrace some other identity, even if I had to invent it.
What better holiday, for one such as I, than Hallowe’en? It’s a time for wearing masks and celebrating the freakish and the weird.
Yet I did not love Hallowe’en. In fact I came to revile it. I came to despise the mass-manufactured, commercialized aspects of the day, which overwhelmed me every time I went to the local supermarket. The sheer volume of cheap plastic novelty items, manufactured on the other side of the planet and shipped here, seemed the very emblem of all that was wrong with our global-capitalist society — to say nothing of the candy peddlers. I was so disgusted I became a sort of Hallowe’en Scrooge.
Even more than the wanton waste of petrochemical resources, I was dismayed by another loss. This modern American celebration of faux-spookiness effectively erased any real spookiness that might be left in the world. I didn’t know much about the history of the holiday. All I knew was that I’d inherited a fraud. The day-glo ghosts and electric skeletons were obviously echoes of some vague past, a time when spirits had real force in the human mind. I had no wish to return what Carl Sagan called the “demon-haunted world,” but I did have a longing for something authentic, something real. I had an instinctive revulsion for this contemporary trivialization of something that might have been important, this travesty of something that might have been sacred, once upon a time. For reasons I could barely articulate, this disturbed me even more than the commercial aspects of that other holiday, the Big One in late December.
As in so many matters, I’ve mellowed over the years. I don’t festoon my home with PVC vampires and battery-powered zombies, but my office is fairly overrun by such accoutrements, thanks to a co-worker whose enthusiasm borders on mania. I take it all in stride, because I’ve found my own way to celebrate.
Becoming a father taught me to see the holiday through a child’s eyes again. Fatherhood has motivated me to seek the deepest meaning and value I can in such customs, for the sake of my child, to say nothing of my own sanity. Most of all, being a parent reminds me that generations come and go. We pass like the seasons. My progeny reinforces awareness of my mortality. I’m mindful of those who’ve come before, and I wonder how my generation will be remembered when we’re gone.
Thus I discovered what what I’d always known, or felt, and returned to an understanding of this festive season that many have shared. It feels like a deeper and more authentic historical truth, but I’ll leave that determination to the academics. This period between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, as the light dies and the shadows grow long, seems particularly suited for looking back. For me, and I hope for my family as well, this has become a time to specially honor our ancestors and the dead. We do this in a variety of ways, in a pattern that shifts and changes from year to year as we learn and grow.
The Day of the Dead
I feel fortunate to enjoy cultural support for the idea of remembering those who have come before. Last year I was praised by a man in his 30s for bringing my daughter (then five) to a cemetery on the first of November. He said he was cheered to see one person there younger than himself.
Here in New Orleans, All Saints’ Day is still celebrated by a number or people. (A few even remember All Souls’ Day on the second of November.) The local cemeteries are still busy at this time, with people visiting their family crypts, but by all accounts it ain’t what it used to be. Once the crowds were thick enough to support food vendors outside the cemetery gates; now it’s a thin trickle. Even in my years here I’ve witnessed the decline, as All Saints’ used to be an official holiday at my place of employment; now it’s just another work day.
We don’t have any close relatives interred in local graves, but we still visit. We live near no fewer than thirteen cemeteries, all of which are picturesque and peaceful and worth a visit. Around this time of year, I look on FindAGrave.com to find requests from people doing genealogical research, people who can’t make it to our city but want a photograph of an inscription. We pack a picnic lunch and make an expedition. Even if we can’t find the requested site, it’s fun, and if our quest is successful then we’re able to help a stranger honor their ancestors.
When surrounded by the dead I always reflect upon the fact that all humans are related, however distantly. We are all one family, regardless of how violently we attempt to separate ourselves through class and race and lineage. Thus, every cemetery is full of my relatives, and yours too. If only we could remember this crucial fact, the world would be a better place.
In our city, and around the country as well, Día de Muertos seems to be gaining ground. This year, we will be learning about how to make a Day of the Dead altar at my daughter’s elementary school. We always pay a visit to the triple shrine for Santísima Muerte which a neighbor has constructed in his back yard, and we usually leave an offering of satsumas or peppermints or the like. We don’t ask anything in return; for us, such rituals are simply opportunities to remember and honor the dead, who vastly outnumber the living.
At home, we’ve celebrated Ancestor’s Night by preparing dishes that a departed grandparent was particularly known to enjoy. While eating the meal we discuss our memories.
I also make sure to do some genealogical work of my own. Our family tree has over 1700 people in it. Many of these are highly speculative, but even the most credible entries are shrouded in some degree of mystery. For example, right now I’m trying to find out more about my father’s father’s father. Even though he is separated from me by only three generations, just about every so-called fact of his life is questionable. I’m talking about basic things like his name, his date and place of birth, and so forth. Of course, these facts are only part of the picture. Each October, I make a point of collecting anecdotes from living relatives about those no longer with us. By piecing disparate information together, a portrait of each ancestor begins to emerge.
“Spookiness” and the Unknown
A common theme that runs through all of these observances has been an elusive sensibility that I can only call spookiness. What does that mean, anyhow? Macmillan supplies an interesting definition: “frightening in a way that makes you nervous because it involves things that do not seem natural and cannot be explained by science.” That looks negative on the face of it. Who would want to be made frightened or nervous? Yet apparently many people do, as witnesses the popularity in our culture of horror movies and haunted houses. There is something delectable about the spooky.
The notion of spookiness is of special interest to the religious naturalist. As a rule, we don’t believe in ghosts, and we tend to trust the scientific method as a way of learning about the world. At the same time, we value mystery, wonder, awe and gratitude. Mystery resides at the limits of our knowledge. Science keeps pushing those limits back, but mystery never vanishes from the world. It only moves to a new address. No matter how much we learn, it seems there will always be new questions to ask. “Ah, so that’s how it works. Okay. Now, I wonder why?” We may not believe in ghosts, and we may not react with fear, but we will always have the unknown.
Death, of course, is the ultimate unknown. We may feel that we have a pretty good idea what death is, but we can never really know for sure, as we haven’t experienced it. Most of our ancestors have, but they’re not talking.
Thus I’d offer a new definition of spooky: “evoking a sense of mystery at the edge of the known.” Such encounters may be fearful but they don’t have to be. After all, every experience of fear is an opportunity for bravery. If we can muster the courage to live fully, our curiosity about the universe will always drive us to the edge of knowledge. We’ll constantly be surfing the new spooky.
So I will leave the flimsy plastic goblins on the shelves of the Dollar General. They have nothing to offer me. In love and charity, I invite you to join me in honoring our ancestors and remembering the dead. However you celebrate, it’s my wish that you may enjoy a most delicious and exquisitely spooky holiday.
In addition to writing the A Pedagogy of Gaia column here at HumanisticPaganism, Bart Everson is a writer, a photographer, a baker of bread, a husband and a father. An award-winning videographer, he is co-creator of ROX, the first TV show on the internet. As a media artist and an advocate for faculty development in higher education, he is interested in current and emerging trends in social media, blogging, podcasting, et cetera, as well as contemplative pedagogy and integrative learning. He is a founding member of the Green Party of Louisiana, past president of Friends of Lafitte Corridor, sometime contributor to Rising Tide, and a participant in New Orleans Lamplight Circle.
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Great column! I like your definition of “spooky”.
This is beautiful. I crave the same authenticity for this ancient and beautiful holiday. Thanks for putting words to the feelings many of us naturalist pagans often have a hard time articulating.
I’d like to add though that although the commercialized version of this holiday that we’ve inherited, with its cheap plastic consumables and mass produced sugar and artificial color concoctions, is indeed destroying the solemnity of ancestor honoring and nature revering that is at the root of this day, I feel there is a place for the carnivalesque. That’s not to say Dollar Store and Walmart plastic decorations are good; you can have the carnivalesque without the crap that so trivializes and makes mockery of the day. But what better way to honor those who have died, and the Earth as it fades into winter, than to live. Sam Portaro said in his book Brightest and Best: A Companion to the Lesser Feasts and Fasts, “In the carnival celebrations of All Hallow’s Eve our ancestors used the most powerful weapon in the human arsenal, the power of humor and ridicule to confront the power of death.” It’s like whistling in the dark, and it’s fun.
Well said. Here in NOLA, we certainly do value the carnivalesque. In fact it is my understanding that Carnival itself as well as Hallowtide celebrations both contain elements which used to be associated with the time of the winter solstice. They were displaced in opposite directions, but represent much of the same spirit.
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