Sunday, October 30, 2011

Skulls, Skeletons and Halloween

I haven't blogged much in recent weeks but I would feel bad if I didn't make my usual entry about some historical facet of the upcoming Halloween holiday.  Since Halloween is such a conglomeration of traditions and observances - many of which have long been forgotten to modern man - it's important to know where symbols and traditions came from.

You can't go to a Halloween store, party or Haunted House without seeing skulls and skeletons.  In fact, death in general plays a large part in Halloween decor and costumes.  Why this morbid fascination with death?

First we have to remember the meaning behind the term "Halloween".  It comes from the old English All Hallow's Eve.. meaning the evening before All Hallow's Day - which we now call All Saints Day (Hallow being a word for something sacred or holy - holy people - Saints. Get it?).  This memorial of all the Saints of Heaven is still observed within the Catholic and Anglican Churches.  The following day, (November 2nd) is All Soul's Day.. a time to remember our departed friends and family - and most especially those who have died who have no one left to pray for their souls, or even carry on their memory.

All Hallow's Day (November 1st) and by extension All Hallow's Eve mark the traditional month of remembering the faith and works of our ancestors, and a time to remember our own temporal state - the sobering fact that we too shall die.

It is not uncommon to hear of ancient theologians, saints and popes who kept skulls on their desks all year round.  No, they weren't into heavy metal - the skull served as a reminder of our own mortality, and that one day - death too would come to them (us).  Death is the great equalizer, and no matter our stations and status in life, we too shall die.

While society and cinema have glamorized, commercialized and secularized All Hallow's Eve - the use of these traditional symbols of death still remain.  We are reminded that death - whether we see it as frightening or not - is a part of life.  Even Jesus faced death.. and was crucified on "the place of the skull" (Golgotha) - which is why some crucifixes have a skull and cross bones beneath them.

I have always found the study of death - burial - mourning customs - etc to be extremely fascinating and have never had a problem with the skulls and skeletons of Halloween.  I don't really fear death per se.. but rather the means in which I will die.

It saddens me to hear Christian extremists condemn Halloween as satanic and pagan (though there is certainly intermingling between old pagan cultures and Christian cultures when the two came together) because of what they perceive as evil.  If they would dig below the surface of their local costume shops and horror flicks on the Sci-fi channel, I think they would see a lot more value in some of the observances of Halloween.  Sadly though, many Christians today are so focused on seeing evil lurking around every corner that they can't see the good in things.. the hope -- hope that comes even in death... the hope of eternal life.

Any way, that's my Halloween history lesson for the year.  Next time you put out your fake tombstones and skeletons, note the old saying: Momento mori - remember, you will die.

Happy Halloween!! :)