Halloween has busted out all over, which I dislike. It's a stupid holiday, filled with teaching children to beg, as if doing it in costume makes it better. I admit I don't mind carving pumpkins, because at least it gives the things a reason to exist, but nothing particularly useful is done with them, the way it will be a month later at Thanksgiving. And for a holiday that has so much to do with eating stuff, the food is execrable. Candy is delicious but shameful--and here I especially include Starburst candy corn, which took a fairly innocent thing I had a slight weakness for and turned it into meth.
So it's not my favorite holiday, but there is a custom I do like, as much for its ancient Celtic character as what it means in the modern age. In the ancient custom of Samhain (pronounced sah-win), on the last day of October, the day before the Day of All Saints, the village fires would all be extinguished. This is a thing that never happened, you understand; even at night, the home fires would be banked and preserved, never truly going out. The hearthfire was of course both light and heat, and extinguishing it at the end of October was an act of faith. Fire is life. Putting out the hearthfire was a drastic act.
Once the fires were out, everyone would carry a stick to the bonfire in the center of town. Into that fire they would throw emblems of things they wished to forget, or do without, or change about themselves. They would write "the $50 Jack owes me" or throw in a doll that represented a child that died, or what have you, and the bonfire would consume it, and take it out of their lives forever. Then they lit their sticks from the town fire, and carried that fire home to light their hearthfires, so that everyone in town had home fires lit from a common source.
It’s a very strange age, the one we live in. We have never had more ways to communicate with each other, yet we have never said less that mattered. Research shows that especially for teens social media use correlates strongly with feelings of being alone and having no friends. Read that again and think about what it means. We hear ceaseless calls to come together, yet we have hardly been more separate.
This custom at Samhain isn’t one that I’ve participated in per se, but there is always a gathering of my community on Halloween night, where we come and celebrate together before returning to our homes to fend of the marauding gangs of costumed children. It’s not quite the same, but it’s something. We need each other. All of us need all the rest of us, whatever our race or religion, whatever our education or financial position, whatever our beliefs or politics. Forgetting that is not just sad, it’s downright dangerous.
Halloween—Samhain—night, you’ll find me in front of a fire, with little slips of paper, feeding them into the flames. If you like, I’ll do one for you, and maybe this next year your home fire will burn a little brighter.