Gallagher: A holiday between life and death

It was around midnight, and I was finishing some work in the Pierson dining hall, when I looked up from my laptop to see a skeleton tangled in one of the chandeliers. And the thought suddenly struck me: so much of what we do around the end of October is really, really strange.

How else to describe it? The bushes outside my entryway in Pierson College have been strewn with false cobwebs, the dining hall has been decorated with effigies of corpses and, at night, the courtyard is bathed in an eerie red light. In every college, normally conformist and well-adjusted people are preparing themselves costumes in styles ranging from the ridiculously pretentious to the ridiculously gruesome to the simply ridiculous.

There’s a good explanation, of course: Halloween is this weekend, and therefore the Pierson Inferno and costumes and gory decorations are traditional. Traditions don’t really need reasons — they’re the things we do just because they’re the things we do.

That’s enough for plenty of people. After the stress of midterms, we can all use some release, and if tradition provides the occasion for masquerade and revelry, for party-going and for the annually impressive Yale Symphony Orchestra show, there’s no need to examine it too closely.

But if we do feel like examining it, the good-natured revelry of Halloween reveals itself a survival of something fearsome, and the comically creepy trappings of our holiday hint at darker predecessors. Our Halloween has its origins in the Celtic feast of Samhain, a harvest festival that was also a festival of the dead, when demons could freely cross from their world into ours. And among the apotropaic customs of the Celts — their attempts to ward off the forces of death — included costumes and jack-o’-lanterns, and much that we would recognize in the modern holiday.

Halloween, of course, is not Samhain. Who of us could really believe that demonic forces prowl the streets of New Haven on a Saturday night in October? Our lives and our beliefs are nothing like those of the ancient Celts: their rites have become our games.

But we and they have one crucial trait in common. We, too, have to stand face-to-face with the same power of death that they hoped to avert on Samhain. Like the ancient denizens of the Irish bogs, we are all going to die. Who wants to think about that?

At a college filled with young, healthy and capable people, it’s easy not to think about death. The occasional obituary in the paper, the names in the Memorial Hall outside Commons are easy enough to ignore. But even if we do ignore them — and it isn’t good for one’s mental health to dwell too seriously on death — we can neither silence nor deny them.

And so it is with Halloween. Whether we are aware of its message or not, the iconography of the holiday — the tombstones and withered bones, images of corruption and death — expresses something. We can live it up on Halloween, striving to distract ourselves from the fate that awaits us all, but we cannot prevent the holiday from carrying with it an echo of the ancients’ fear of death, and a reminder that every breath we take draws us closer to our last. But that echo is faint, and that reminder is dim: why should we pay them any attention? If the inevitability of death is what Halloween really means, we should be glad that the centuries have sapped it of its significance, and we’d do well to ignore the intentions of those who passed it down to us.

But they, wiser than we, knew better than to let death have the last word. And so, since the eighth century, the macabre revelry of October 31st has been followed immediately by All Saints’ Day, a feast acknowledging the dead not as vengeful lemurs or fearsome ghosts, but as heroes worthy of emulation. And in time, the ancient holiday was christened with a new name: All Hallows’ Eve.

Only a pedant would insist on using that name (though it’s tempting to imagine a new campaign for the Christian Right: “Keep the Hallows in Halloween”). But etymology doesn’t lie. With the change in the holiday’s name came a change in the holiday’s meaning. We may have forgotten this, but the calendar remembers, and announces it: the day of death is only the prelude to a day of celebration.

It’s not as if we need some transcendental permission to party this weekend. But if we did want it, we’d have it. We’re justified in celebrating Halloween, and we can celebrate it with a gladness of heart the ancient Celts could never have known. For alongside the tradition that brings us Halloween, is a tradition that announces — if we care to hear it — that death is not to be taken too seriously.

That tradition can be seen even in New Haven: tomorrow night, at the end of York Street, past the Pierson Inferno, past Toad’s, past gothic towers and skeletal trees, the gates of the Grove Street cemetery will still be looming, bearing words — “The dead shall be raised” — that refer to something other than zombies.

Kevin Gallagher is a junior in Pierson College.

Comments

  • Merrie Bergmann

    Sometimes when we try really hard to present our ideas gently, we almost fail to present them at all.

  • Recent Alum

    “Only a pedant would insist on using that name (though it’s tempting to imagine a new campaign for the Christian Right: ‘Keep the Hallows in Halloween’).”

    I see the War on Christmas is starting early this year.