Why Halloween?

Halloween has deep spiritual roots and is increasingly popular. Why?

Centering Thought: Every day of your life is a page of your history – Arabian proverb

Share the plate: Microfinance Fund
Celebrant: Gloria Holland/Sara Pickett, Anchor:  Arrhiannon Kirkpatrick
First service music: UUCS Choir
Second service music: Sara Greenleaf


When you live in the same neighborhood for twenty five years, as I have in South Salem, you may begin to notice certain patterns – such as how many youngsters to expect on Halloween.  In the early years I didn’t get it and would find myself dashing out halfway through the evening to purchase more candy to placate the teeming hordes of ghosts, goblins, zombies, super heroes and fairy princesses who kept appearing out of the darkness to ring our doorbell.  Finally, I began to keep track of how many trick or treaters showed up from year to year.  It averages around 200, with a gradual uptick over the years.  So now I am prepared for this night.

Frankly, I didn’t think it would come to this.  Given my sense of general trends in American society I thought Halloween would have slowly withered away on the pumpkin vine.    

After all, parents have become more fearful and protective – less likely to allow their children to go out and encounter strangers, plus which we know that too much sugary candy isn’t good for kids.  Many conservative Christians disparage Halloween as some kind of Satanic pagan observance – (in saying this I feel a sense of sadness for our sisters and brothers who are trapped in the nightmarish, hellish theological narratives that leaves them feeling so fearful and mistrustful of life).  And finally, in our hectic, workaholic society, traditions hold less sway and I thought this meant that Halloween would die away.

Nor did foresee how many adults, hungry for some sweet celebration in their lives, would discover that Halloween need not be just for kids.  So many adults now dress up in costumes and party on Halloween that we’ve witnessed the “adultification of Halloween”.  (In truth Halloween only became a child centered celebration in the 1950’s when sprawling suburbs were built.)

Then, too, I did not recognize the economic clout of the Halloween industrial complex – the costume and candy makers, the decorators and all the businesses that are able to cash in on Halloween to the tune of about 8 billion dollars a year and have a vested interest in keeping it going.  

All of which goes to show what a poor cultural observer and prognosticator I can be.  Halloween is not dying on the vine– if anything, it’s been reborn.  What’s this really all about?  My sense is that there is a spiritual heart to this matter.  

Spiritual?  What’s that mean?  A few weeks ago I was chatting with some newcomers and one of them – a self described “rock ribbed atheist” was a little concerned about my use of this word “spiritual.”  I told him that some of the most spiritual people I know call themselves atheists.  For me “spiritual” is not a theological term implying a certain belief system – rather it’s a word that points to having profound awareness of interconnectedness of life – “the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part” as we say in our UU purposes and principles.  For me being on the spiritual path is about awakening to and cherishing an ever expanding awareness of the interconnection – to one another, to everything.  Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield notes:  “compassion is our deepest nature.  It arises from our awareness of our interconnection with all beings.”  This is where the spiritual path leads – to an awareness of connection and feelings of compassion for all beings.

Now few things can instantly put me in better spiritual place than young children – especially on Halloween night.  When they ring the doorbell I answer and feign ignorance, saying “Halloween?  I didn’t know tonight was Halloween!  Why didn’t someone tell me?  And you expect me to give you a treat?  Hey, what’s this?  A large bowl of candy sitting right here?  OK, this’ll work out after all – here take some.”  I love seeing them in their adorable, outlandish and macabre outfits.  I wish the best for each of them and my heart aches when I think of how hard some of their lives probably are and when I think of the world we are bequeathing to them.

The next day some of the children I know in the neighborhood will ask if I recognized them behind their masks.  Which begs the question – why do people wear masks on Halloween?  Why try to hide your identity?  They say that people began wearing masks (at least in Celtic lands) around this time of year because it was believed that the souls of the departed roamed the earth until All Saints day (early November) and “All Hallows’ Eve” in late October provided one last chance for the dead to wreak vengeance on their living enemies before moving on to the next world.  To avoid being recognized, people wore masks to disguise themselves in case some dead soul had it in for them.  You never know.  Why take a chance?  Put on a mask to protect yourself.

In truth, we do put on masks to protect ourselves.  It’s virtually impossible to live in society and not, from time to time, feel the need to mask your true feelings lest you get laughed at or fired or judged or ridiculed or ostracized – so you learn to put on a mask and hide your true feelings.  The great danger here is that if you wear a mask long enough you run the risk of losing touch with yourself and forgetting who you really are.

Which brings us to the paradoxical contemporary reason for wearing a mask.  The Rev. Tom Owen Towle, under whom I did my ministerial internship over 30 years ago, first made me aware of this.  He told us that when he dressed as a giant rabbit on Halloween no one could tell who he was and this enabled him to act more freely, to be silly and dance and have fun.  His Halloween disguise enabled him to express a side of his character he generally kept hidden.  In other words, you may need to wear a mask on Halloween so you can free yourself from the mask you habitually wear in your daily life.  Tom is far from being the only person to discover that putting on a Halloween mask empowers you to take off another.  One woman noted:  “when I put on my mask I get to be who I really am.”

And who are you and I really?  My experience tells me that the answer may be way greater than you imagine.  The ancients did believe – and I’m not inclined to dismiss the notion – that this time of year–  All Hallows Eve, All Souls Day, Samhain, Dias De Las Muertes (Day of the Dead) in Hispanic culture- is a liminal time when the boundary between the living and the dead is at its thinnest, most permeable.  It’s also a bountiful time of year when the crops transition from life to harvested food which gives us life.  

Whether or not you believe in any type of existence beyond the death of our bodies, it’s an auspicious time to gratefully acknowledge the love and wisdom that gets passed down from one generation to the next – to remember and feel gratitude for the lives of those now gone.

A wise Puerto Rican friend of indigenous Taino ancestry (we first met when he was working as the Buddhist Chaplain at Oregon State Prison) tells me how his palpable sense of the loving presence of his ancestors in his daily life is central to his spiritual life.  He says that American society’s lack of reverence for our ancestors leaves a hole in our hearts.  When I pointed out to him that one of my ancestors was a captain in the Confederacy and I could not see my way to revering him, he advised that I focus on my spiritual ancestors – Buddha, Beethoven, Gandhi, Jesus, Shantideva, Samuel J. May, Dorothea Dix, Olympia Brown, Theodore Parker –  great souls for whom I do have profound reverence. 

It’s true that we Americans are largely forward gazing.  Yet I also know that we are not averse to gratefully acknowledging the presence of ancestors in our lives when given the chance.  In fact, I see this quite clearly several times a year.

Every year members and friends in our congregation die.  I meet with the family, bring out the Kleenex and ask them to start talking about the one they have lost – to just say anything that pops into their head.  The family starts talking.  One memory stirs another and another and another.  Usually this goes on for about two hours.  I’m in no rush.  Everyone has the chance to have their say and share all they want.  I may ask a few questions to keep priming the pump.  Finally, the remembering comes to a natural end.  We can now prepare to celebrate this life in the memorial service, the heart of which is the sharing distilled essence of the one now gone.  

And yet, invariably through this ritual of remembering we make this spiritual discovery – the one we mourn has not gone.  We can sense that the love they invested in the world continues to pay dividends in our lives.  Or, if you prefer a more natural metaphor – the living will now harvest the sweet fruits those who have died cultivated during their lives.  

At such times there is grief and tears flow, but not all tears are tears of grief.  In truth, I think the feeling that leads us to shed the most tears in life is not grief, but gratitude – profound gratitude.  Gratitude for the gifts of life and love and beauty and meaning and joy that have come to you through the lives of others and now shape who you are.  At such moments of spiritual insight the spurious notion that you are some separate, isolated being is rendered absurd.  We are more than that.  We carry within us the greatness of the love that transcends mortality – the love that has nurtured us in our lives.  We are greater than we know for we carry within us the shining examples of great souls who came before us.  

Time flows on, the seasons turn – All Hallowed Eve, Samhain, Deus De Las Muertes are coming soon.  The fruits and vegetables have been harvested.  It’s a good time to take off the daily masks that inhibit your larger self, to celebrate with friends, to experience the joy of life and gratitude for the blessings and connections and love.