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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM

Tricks or Treats for Our Souls

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, October 25, 2009

          Not too long ago, a group of second graders at a school up in New Brunswick in Canada were asked by their teacher to write Halloween stories. Here are a couple of them.


          This one’s called “The Ghost”:


          “A ghost is spying on me? What will I do? The ghost said, ‘Go away!’ I ran home.”


          That’s it—the whole thing. Nice and simple and direct. Kind of zen, perhaps.


          Here’s another one. This one’s called “Halloween Night”:


          “Once upon a time, there was a little boy named Johnny. He was walking down the road one night and he saw a vampire and a wicked witch and a ghost and a skeleton. Johnny was so scared, he ran to his house. He said, ‘Mom, Mom, I saw a vampire and a wicked witch and a ghost and a skeleton.’ But Johnny’s mom didn’t believe him. She just said, ‘Oh, Johnny, there are no such things.’”


          But Johnny knew what his eyes had seen. So did the other child in the first story. Kids know. Kids know, I think, that the veil between the seen and the unseen, between myth and reality, between those of us who have passed on and those of us still here, is a thin one. They know of the power that figments of our imagination have to haunt us—or, to enchant us. They know. And on Halloween, they teach us about it, too.


          I know that there are some preachers who like to intone against the “evils of Halloween”. It’s the Devil’s holiday, they say; it’s based in paganism—or worse, it’s Satan-worship. It’s a black mass, mirror image of the true religion, the true faith (“true” as defined by them, of course). These are the same pleasure haters who want to ban the Harry Potter books. They’re the spiritual, if not biological, descendents of those who wanted to ban The Wizard of Oz a couple of generations ago.


          Some people don’t like Halloween for other reasons. It’s too commercial they say. If we are honest, we’d probably have to admit that “Gimme candy!” probably would replace “Trick or treat!” as the Halloween greeting of choice in some quarters. What really gets to me sometimes—great traditionalist that I am [when it’s convenient for me to be a “traditionalist]—is how many kids show up on our doorstep on Halloween night, and just stand there (with their bags open, of course), and say nothing! No “Trick or treat!”—No “Happy Halloween!”-- nothing! Doesn’t anybody teach these kids how to act? So, I have what I call the “two candy bar rule”: If you say “Trick or treat!” you get two little candy bars. If you don’t—you get just one…


          Now, it’s easy, of course, to condemn the commercialism of Halloween. (Along with the commercialization of everything else. Tell me: What isn’t commercialized in this culture of ours?). Just listen to these figures from a recent issue of American Heritage: Ninety-two percent of American children go out on Halloween night, and seventy percent of American households open their doors to them; fifty percent of Americans take photographs on Halloween (that’s a lot of film); Coors beer sales rise by over 10%; the sale for black-and-orange Halloween Rice Krispies (yuk!) rise by almost 20% for the week, as do holiday M&Ms. When Nabisco began filling Oreos with orange rather than white cream in October, demand for the cookie increased by 50%. Add to this a “Syncromotion Grim Reaper” which sings and dances and sells for $199.95, and a “Fog Master” to give lawns that “haunted look” which sells for $ 99.95, and you can see why Halloween adds more than 6 billion dollars to the American economy each year. Six billion dollars—that’s a lot of black and orange Rice Krispies—or a lot of  “Halloween Peeps”, shaped like Jack O’ Lanterns and ghosts!


          The question is, of course: Is it worth the price?


          What do we gain from Halloween?


            At this time of year, our ancient ancestors said, the veil between the world of the living and the dead grew thin, and the world of our physical reality and the world of our spiritual reality would come together and communicate. To many ancient peoples, the day of Samhain—October 31st on our modern calendars-- marked the beginning of the new year, the start of a new cycle. Sometimes, they would light huge ritual bonfires to burn away the images of the old, and free themselves from the fears and worries of the past.


          In our joy and merriment at Halloween, we celebrate these ancient ancestors. Indeed, we join with them again along the way of the spirit.


So, the first lesson of Halloween is not to be afraid of witches.


          When Christianity overtook Britain, many of the earlier pagan festivals and celebrations were taken into the Christian calendar, and recast in a new Christianized mode. Samhain became “All Hallows’ Eve”—or “All Saints’ Eve”—that is, the eve before All Saints Day on November 1st. The Church added a new feast day—All Souls Day on November 2nd—to try to replace All Hallow’s Eve (or “Hallow’een”).  But many of the ancient pagan customs persisted—as they did in our celebrations of Christmas, and Easter, and other holy days on the Christian calendar.


          “Christianity is paganism reinterpreted,” as one writer has put it. Or, perhaps, it is paganism deepened and intensified in the light of a whole new salvation epic. Christianity has certainly gained much of its vividness and color and joy in reflecting some of the practices of our pre-Christian pagan ancestors.


            Halloween gives us a chance to honor these pagan ancestors, and to ponder just how deeply their earth-based traditions—their respect for the sacred circle of life and their reminder to us to live in harmony with the cycles and rhythms of nature—can enrich and empower our own personal faiths.


            Halloween reminds us not to be afraid of witches, but rather to honor these ancient wise men and wise women as our spiritual forbears.


The second lesson of Halloween is its reminder that we dwell in two worlds: that we are both physical and spiritual beings, and that we need to keep open the channels of communication between those two realms.  


            Our ancient ancestors knew intuitively the power of the “time between”: the critical importance of that time of year when the veil was at its thinnest, and the amazing things that can happen near boundaries and borderlands. Magic happens around thresholds, the place where inner and outer come together.


            In rural Ireland in days gone-by, a visitor to someone’s home would stop before the threshold before entering, and say a blessing for those inside. The earth just inside the door was considered holy ground, and thought to have special healing powers because it was an “in-between place”, which marked the boundary between the individual household and the whole wide world (indeed, the whole wide universe) that lay beyond. It was a crack, a crevice, between the two worlds, where the power of both could rush in and intermingle.


            As the great scholar of cultures and religions Mircea Eliade wrote:


            “[The threshold is] the limit, the boundary, the frontier that distinguishes and opposes two worlds—and at the same time the paradoxical place where the two worlds communicate, where passage from the profane to the sacred… becomes possible…”


In Mexican culture, there’s a parallel holiday around this time of year, that takes place on All Souls’ Day (November 2nd) called the Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. As one Mexican writer has put it, the Day of the Dead is a way of sharing our lives with those who have passed on, whom we have loved and lost. It is a declaration that they are still a part of us, that we are still joined with them in an indestructible garment of all eternity. The traditional parade for the Dia de los Muertos begins with the words “Vamanos con los muertos!” (“Come, let us go with the dead.”) As go we all will—sooner or (we hope) later.


            Halloween also reminds us that there is a spiritual realm, which is as much a part of our ongoing reality as our physical lives are-- and that as complete beings, we need to keep communication between the two realms open.


The third lesson of Halloween is that we shouldn’t be afraid to try on different masks.


            We need to break routine from time to time; we need to imagine ourselves as superheroes—as brave warriors and beautiful princes and princesses—as clowns, and angels, and court jesters—as Princess Leah or Count Dracula or what have you. Sometimes, we need to let fantasy and imagination have free reign within us.

            We wear many hats—many costumes, many masks maybe-- in these lives of ours: hats as fathers and mothers; sons and daughters; hats of our various professions. But these roles we already play don’t exhaust the possibilities that lie within our souls.


The masks and costumers we don on Halloween—as esoteric and exotic and downright weird and scary as they are—can speak to us a word or two about those different possibilities that lie within us. We have the chance, if only for a few hours, to transform ourselves into something we might have always wanted to be. Or, we have the power to confront some part of us that frightens us, and holds us back. Who knows? Perhaps this simple ritual of transformation can open up new possibilities for the persons we might yet become.


Finally, the fourth lesson of Halloween (and it’s a big one) is its reminder to us to celebrate life! To en-joy life (that is, consciously to bring joy into our lives). It is a call to loosen up, to have fun, to become like children once again. It reminds us that religious ritual need not be always solemn and somber; that the spiritual search need not be as dry as dust.


            Halloween is one of the few times in the entire year when adults are allowed to play “dress up” and just act downright silly. It’s a time when we can give our imaginations full reign, and play tricks on one another, and where chocolate takes its rightful place as chief among the major food groups. The social conventions we live with every day, year in, year out, are suspended, or even reversed, at Halloween. On Halloween, we can be whoever we want to be!


Halloween is a kind of rest stop along the way of our spiritual journeys; it can be an oasis in the desert of modern life. It is a chance to suspend narrow reason and cold logic—if only for a day or two—and let the cool winds of autumn and the changing seasons refresh our souls. It is a chance to go outside in the cool night, on the cusp of November, on the threshold of winter, and breathe in the rich aromas of turf fire and fallen leaves and the smell the scents of the turning year.


It is a blessed time to light again the bonfires of our souls. To lift our spirits above the empty materialism that rules over us all too often. To remember those who have come before. To rejoice in another turning of the wheel of life. And to prepare ourselves for the next step of our own journeys.


            Halloween reminds us that there is always one cycle ending and another coming to birth. That is an irrefutable fact of life, and it always gives me great hope. There is always one cycle ending and another coming to birth. As it is for the seed that lies dormant in the rich, dark earth, so may it be in the lives and souls of all of us, and of our world.


            The holy is right here.


            The sacred is right now.


            And we must never turn our backs on every opportunity we have to celebrate life, in all of its profound mystery and wonder.


            As our ancient pagan ancestors would say: Blessed be.


            Blessed be life, in all its joy and mystery.



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