Time to give Halloween a spell?

Two years ago, at this time of year, I was in the United States. I was attending a conference of Dominican Sisters and Associates and was travelling with Sr Jenny Gerathy OP of Waratah.

Time to give Halloween a spell?

Our longest stay in one place was in the beautiful city of Chicago, and we were blessed (largely) by pleasantly autumnal days, great for sightseeing and for photography. Both at the hotel where the conference was held, and in the suburban B&B where we spent additional nights, we were struck – fortunately not literally – by the ubiquitous pumpkin!


They were everywhere – individually at doorsteps and on window sills on the streets we walked, in small numbers at shops, restaurants and other public buildings, and every so often, in vast cornucopian splendour! Orange was truly the new black.


Mainly, we got it. It was ‘fall’, the days were getting shorter and colder, and in places like Chicago, winter is long and a force to be reckoned with. I photographed a sign that said, “No parking when snow is over 2 inches”! The pumpkins, genuine or otherwise, were bright spots of colour, drawing the eye and lifting the spirit. They made us smile and because this was an unfamiliar phenomenon to us, we took lots of photos; the more pumpkins captured the better!


The pumpkins and other accoutrements – skeletons and tombstones, ghouls and ghosts, scarecrows and spider webs and witches – were a novelty, each scene more macabre than the last, and they led to many a conversation. We even saw buses decorated for the season, and had to negotiate our way among cobwebs to seats not occupied by ‘passengers’ looking somewhat the worse for wear.


For some years now Australia has been seduced by the Halloween phenomenon – or at least the marketers have. Throughout October (if not September), merchandise – most of it awfully plastic – abounds and children are encouraged to think about ‘trick or treating’. Something less tricky than all-out commercialism can hardly be imagined, and for us ‘down under’, the season’s all wrong. Our days are getting longer and warmer. In the US, Halloween gives way to Thanksgiving. Here, it’s a long countdown to Christmas, and Halloween is little more than a distraction, although potentially a costly one.


Halloween, or as it’s properly known, All Hallows Eve, is the day before All Saints Day. As Brian Matthews points out in “Supermarket witches and the Australian pumpkin boom”, “It has a complex provenance in which Christian, pagan, Celtic and darker influences are mixed.” In A Yearbook of Seasons and Celebrations, Englishwoman Joanna Bogle writes, “Traditionally, the Eve of All Saints was regarded as a ‘spooky’ time for a variety of reasons: the darkness is gathering as November arrives, it was the time of year when our pagan ancestors remembered their dead and associated death with autumn and the dying of the trees and flowers, and November was the month set aside by the Church for prayer for the dead. The great Feast of All Saints was, in medieval times, celebrated with bonfires...which certainly predates our Guy Fawkes. And it was assumed that Satan was angry at the thought of all those saints in Heaven – so this was a night when witches swooped around the sky on broomsticks, spells were chanted, and occult things occurred.”        


If you had any doubts, you might be convinced now that Halloween has little relevance here – with or without the plastic.


In terms of the liturgical year, Halloween falls in what’s called Ordinary Time. Not ordinary as in ‘dull and predictable’, but ordinary as in ‘not extraordinary’. Most of life – liturgical or otherwise – is ‘ordinary time’, and the ‘big days’ and achievements mean so much more because they’re extraordinary. I don’t believe life is meant to be lived by hurtling from one big event/occasion /celebration to the next, with little time to regroup, much less breathe!


Back in 2012, former Aurora columnist Anna Humphries shared one of her family’s traditions. “I’ve been going orange-picking once a year for as long as I can remember. This year, my cousins and sisters and I talked on Facebook for a couple of weeks before the big day. After the fact, we uploaded our photos, tagged each other and commented on the great times. Every one of our orange-picking days is a treasured memory. The year I was in the same kinder class as two of my cousins, we took our new collection of cow bones to school for show and tell. The year I was in third class, the creek was flowing freely, and we built a little dam with rocks....The common thread in all these magical memories is family. The oranges are wonderful, but it’s the people who pick them that make them so special.”


I believe there is an authentic rhythm in nature – in the calendar year – in our very breathing. Each individual, each family, each community, reshapes its calendar to echo its own story. Birthdays, anniversaries – happy ones and sad ones – rituals and customs – ground us, enliven the year and provide anticipation and satisfaction. We should choose to hallow these and pass them on with love. 


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