"Now do those who walk go to houses and give the candy?" asked Gladys, from Capetown.
"No," said my friend Bob. "Houses give. Walkers get."
Keith, Gladys' husband, snapped pictures and rumbled with continuous laughter.
It was a cool night, windless, starry. Cassiopeia, Queen of Ethiopia and the mother of Andromeda, towered above us on her constellated throne. Andromeda's husband Perseus, teenage hero, sparkly with his pointed hat, strode beneath the queen. Dusty orange Mars outblazed Aldebaran, the principal star of Taurus.
Gladys oohed at jack o' lanterns; she was at once an icon of joy and a middle-aged woman in a cardigan.
My son decided to call on the house of one of his friends, and we split off from the main party. On the way back, we took the path that joggers use during the day, a corridor walled off by mature oaks. The oaks closed around us, darker than the sky, which was gray with city glare. Ahead, the split in the woods made by the path turned into an arrow of light for us-- or of lesser dark-- showing the way.
At home, Gladys and Keith sipped tea and marveled at the cold, while the kids sorted candy.
"I got eight Skittles," my daughter exulted.
I have hated Halloween since I got too old to trick or treat, and I hated it even more after I became a homeowner. But this year was different. I am no longer a homeowner, and I am rediscovering the good things of childhood. What I let be menace in years past resolved this year into good nature: traditional, honest, human religion.
On Halloween I always turn to an old mentor, Kenneth Reckford, a Catholic classicist who has perfectly modeled for me the pagan and the Christian in sacramental piety. On a Friday during Lent one year he was at the head of a table at a Chinese restaurant. We were celebrating a play done in Latin. Big as I was at the time on food fasts, I reminded him of the moment.
He didn't hesitate to order his penitential seafood dish: "Lobster with garlic sauce," he told the waiter.
Reckford's Aristophanes' Old-and-New Comedy is his magnum opus. It's about the origins and purpose of ancient comedy. It's very readable and fun, very serious and yet full of play. This is one of the things he has to say about Halloween:
More than Mardi Gras, Halloween shows the other side of carnival, the wild and dangerous side. It lets us glimpse the fuller catharsis, not just of individuals releasing their darker selves, but of a community, a world slipping back (for a brief, limited time) into chaos and old night.
This chaos and old night comes from an ancient memory of Halloween as a transition between times. Halloween is Celtic Samhain, a New Year's celebration (so is April Fool's, of a kind). As we walk through the threshold from old to new, we are betwixt and between,neither fish nor fowl, and an opportunity is given for uncanny things to happen, and for the dead to return again. But when we dress up the kids as spirits, we drain away the spirits' power, and civilization is saved again for a year.
Civilization is a tough thing to preserve. So is a false sense of self. On Halloween, masks come off as well as on. This year, finally, I stopped holding on so tight to my mask, and the catharsis of which Reckford writes, a spiritual cleansing, came sweet to me.
I thought of Cavafy's gorgeous lines, from Ithaka, a poem about journeys:
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon-- you won't encounter them,
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Somehow, always the hardest lesson to learn is to stop being your own curse.
Tomorrow, All Saints' Day, I'll give thanks for a new day and the best nature of humanity. I'll tip my hat to Chrysostom, John the Evangelist, Anthony the preacher, Francis the nude, Clare, and Dr. King, along with my father and my grandparents, and many others. Given grace, I'll cut myself some slack.
See you next year, Jack.