Halloween has its origin in an ancient Celtic pagan tradition called Samhain, which was celebrated approximately halfway between the fall equinox and winter solstice on October 31.1 It marked the beginning of the darkest and toughest season. Bonfires were lit to appease the gods and spirits that were believed to cross over to our world more easily during the dark season. Also, people thought the souls of their ancestors visited then and needed welcoming during feasts. The celebration of Samhain included walking from door-to-door in costumes, reciting verses in exchange for food. In the 9th century, Samhain was turned into the Christian celebration of All Saints’ and then All Souls’ Day. Eventually, and to the absolute delight of my son, Samhain and All Souls’ Day merged to create our Halloween, a horrifying display of skeletons and ghosts, that is for our children.
What, if not courage, does it take for our youth to trespass a stranger’s scarily decorated property in the dark, demanding candy? And what triumph when adults obey! While the costumes range from cute to terrifying, they all somewhat disguise the “taker” to the “giver,” making the test of courage a little less scary. Halloween is not supposed to cause our kids nightmares, so the adults must do their best to make the unbearable confrontation with death and ghosts age-appropriately bearable. Instead of becoming swallowed up by the darkness of life, the idea is to flirt and play with it, to challenge our youth without going overboard. All this costs money, time, psychological savvy and possibly a dentist, so why grant our children this macabre, slightly anarchic extravaganza?
Apart from the fun and adrenaline rush, Halloween and similar festivities all over the world cause, the facing and embracing of death and ghosts is meaningful to human beings. Our very survival depends on the cultivation of the virtue of courage throughout our lives. As pampered as we are in the Western world, with bright lights illuminating both the inside and outside of our homes, with supermarkets providing food and science explaining the conception and end of life, as hidden as our sick and dying are in hospitals and funeral homes, we are still and will always be confronted with the fragility of life, our mortality as well as with evil forces within and without that we might as well call demons. If we fail to see eye-to-eye with the big challenges of life, we will spend too much time avoiding and too little time solving our most urgent problems.
On the other hand, Halloween is also the celebration of our imagination and willingness to suspend our belief and dance with our neighbors and friends. Please do not let this dark post take away your lightheartedness. So, when you are not busy enjoying yourself and when you are not clinically depressed, what can you do to be brave and jump right into the fire [of life]?
ONE: FACE AND EMBRACE YOUR IMPERMANENCE
Make room in this season to turn inward and become still. Light a candle at the dinner table. Think of how precious life is and how you want to feel about your life when you look back one day. Are you doing what you want to do? Are you overcoming your fears and go after your dreams? The thought of death can be depressing, but when we are capable of just looking at this fact, that is if we can acknowledge our impermanence without letting feelings take over our awareness, such thought can also be inspiring.
TWO: FACE AND EMBRACE YOUR INNER DEMONS
Moreover, when you are in the mood for meeting your inner ghosts—and why not, after having toughened yourself up with Halloween in your youth and with the current horror show of politics—go ahead and carve out some time for these types of ghosts too. Ask yourself by what you feel haunted. What is it that you cannot admit to yourself and thus project onto others? What parts of you are so unwanted that you cannot own them? Try to identify areas in your life that make you feel all rigid insight, ashamed, judgmental or angry. Under rigidities hide your inner demons and when you look them straight in the eye, with love and self-compassion, they tend to disappear. If they do not, make friends with them by knowing your imperfections are signs of your humanness and your awareness a sign of your courage.
Ironically, when we face and embrace death and demons, we become more alive and healed, as long as we are gentle with ourselves and not prone to get stuck in a dark mood. Happiness is not feeling wonderful all the time, but feeling ourselves to be a part of life. Showing up for life, its strength and its fragility, requires confidence and courage. Both can be learned, when we are willing to focus on them.2 Be brave and enjoy the most wondrous season of them all.
To understand our cultural evolution, you might just love to take The Modern Scholar courses by Professor Timothy B. Shutt, Celts and Germans. If you like to learn more about “The Fragility Of Life” and how to respond to it for the sake of happiness, you might benefit from reading Chapter 3 and 7 of A Unified Theory of Happiness.