Here they are: the pumpkins and wraiths and nocturnal creatures who’ve clawed their way up from the dirt to crowd the brightly lit shelves of our modern temples.
Plastic spiders and bones and bats, spectral congregations to project against your garage door, animatronic ghouls to stagger and moan in your front yard. Clearly, Americans have an acute longing for the dark and mysterious, the strange and unusual.
You could dismiss our extravagant societal obsession with Halloween as just another example of rampant consumerism, but that seems too easy to me. What I always want to know is: what's underneath? Why do we flock like lemmings to the Halloween Superstore when, presumably, ancient humans had no such drive?
My gut tells me that there's an organic human urge beneath all this production and consumption of orange and black plastic knick knacks. And if that's the case, then there must be an organic human way to satisfy that urge.
The answers, as always, are in Nature. What we know is that at this time of year, all of Nature is 'going to ground'- harvesting and stocking up, preparing to hibernate, spiffing up burrows, letting leaves fall as the energy of the branches makes its annual return down into the roots. Even the sun is on a reduced schedule.
As daylight hours dwindle, humans carry on as if they're immune to Nature's rhythm- outside of and above this energetic tide.
We set our alarms for the same times, push ourselves to accomplish the same hours of productivity, examine our hormones and diets for clues to our waning energy..... and develop a gnawing craving for hot pumpkin drinks and rainy days.
As I see it, the descending energy of the waning year awakens the voices of our bones within us. They long for meaning, for substance, for the stories and traditions of our ancient past- a time when death wasn’t feared, when science and myth graciously supported each other, a time when life was less dreadfully sanitary and orderly and uniform.
Our bones have the memories of mountains; they remember things our brains cannot- the eons when we were still woven snugly into the steady embrace of the natural world; before we intoxicated ourselves with ideas of ‘better’, ‘faster’, ‘easier’; before we began to fear the things that once made us whole.
The rising darkness tickles awake faint, bone-deep memories of the old ways and sets us looking for satisfaction.
And when we go looking for meaning and ritual, what do we find?
The tradition of back-to-school. Maybe some football games. And aisle after sterile aisle of soulless polyester costumes; towers of synthetic pumpkins in every possible shape, size, and material; surprisingly expensive mega-bags of cheap candy; acres of orange and black detritus that is so clearly just visiting briefly on its way to the landfill that you wonder how it's even legal.
And still, I get a thrill from those aisles. There's some comfort in them, even if I very, very rarely bring anything home.
What is that? It's Nature.
It's a biologically pre-ordained longing for depth, decay, darkness, and magic that's being funneled into consumerism.
Attacking consumerism does nothing. It's just a symptom. Shaming or scolding people who are just using the primary societally-approved outlet for their ancient biological needs is like shaming a child who's acting out because they're hungry. All they need is food.
All we need is meaning, depth, connection. When these needs- yes, needs- are met, then the passion for accumulation begins to cool (you can just imagine how many powerful people don't want you to know this).
The trouble is that buying stuff never really scratches the itch- never comes close. So every year we need a little more, and everyone we know needs a little more, until it feels normal to have garages and attics full of seasonal accessories.
Meanwhile, our bones never get the satisfaction they deserve.
At times, you may get a skin-crawling feeling that there must be something more, that it can't be just this. But if you look around and don't see anything else, what choice do you have but to resign yourself? You conclude that it's your longing that must be the problem and the part of yourself that needs magic folds in on itself and becomes a little more despondent every year.
This longing is what drove me to craft a different kind of halloween for my daughter and myself.
If you know this longing too and are interested in exploring some more meaningful outlets, I’ve identified some of the key qualities of the season- the things our bones are longing for- and general ideas for satisfying these needs. This could be a dissertation, but I kept it short so you can follow your intuition and make it your own.
Our halloween is one that affirms the inherent darkness of the season as a reflection of the darkness within each of us; one whose heart is akin to how our distant ancestors might have observed this time of year, but loose enough that it can be interpreted by people of any lineage in any environment; one that recognizes that the only thing terrible about witches and night creatures is how difficult they are to manipulate or oppress.
To make it easier to immerse yourself in these more traditional Halloween activities, I’ve created a 31-day advent calendar for kids and adults alike.
Just print the pdf at the bottom of the page and cut into strips (note: I see that as I was rearranging and updating the calendar for this year I made a mistake and called day 29 the ‘last sleep’ before Halloween. Feel free to cross that out or adjust it as you see fit!). Some people put the strips in a bowl or jar, or you could use numbered envelopes.
These are earth-based practices, meant to connect you to Nature and yourself. There’s no witchcraft or wizardry involved, except in the sense that real witches and wizards were wise, self-possessed, powerful elders who were in deep relationship with the natural world in which they lived.
As always, the ultimate rule is to take what feels authentic to yourself and leave the rest.
Live in the moment! they shout. Stay in the present! the now!
While it’s true that becoming too mired in the past or future robs you of the present, as with any absolutist advice, this has a lot of flaws. The past is where we come from, it’s the compost that our present grows out of- both our personal pasts and our society’s collective ones. I also believe it’s a natural law that if we’re getting snagged on something- the past, negative thoughts, a particular habit, a recurring dream- it isn’t a sign of our flawed character, but that there’s something within that’s asking for our attention.
Balance comes from weaving past, present, and future into a cohesive, co-creative whole. When neither is better or worse than the other, then we can learn from each of them individually and from how each relates to the other two.
The dark half of the year is a time to dive into the past- ghosts, demons and all. For you, this might mean your childhood, it might mean the lineage of the land you live on, the lives of your recent ancestors or the traditions and lifestyles of your distant, pre-narcissystem ancestors. Pick a thread and follow it- through forests and family albums, historical fiction and ancient documents. Let your intuition lead you and it’s sure to take you somewhere amazing!
Compared to our ancestors’ costumes, even the most elaborate cosplay getup feels flat. The issue, as I see it, is that we try to overcompensate for a lack of history, intention, and yes- meaning, with wow-factor. We use disguises as something to escape into, whereas- if I could make a sweeping generalization about the thousands of cultures who wove costume into their celebrations, ceremonies, and rites- our ancestors employed them to become either more themselves and/or to more deeply a part of the world they lived in.
Knowing this makes the costume aisle at Target distinctly less compelling.
How can you reclaim the tradition of costumes that nourish your spirit? Here are a few ways to start:
Think about how you want to feel, not how you want to look. By ‘feel’, I don’t mean ‘comfortable’. I mean, powerful, eternal, mysterious, omniscient, terrifying. These feelings alone might start to suggest a form, or they might remind you of aspects of Nature that embody these qualities.
Abandon linearity. Put your costume together intuitively. You might want a wig of moss and bear hands, you might want to wrap yourself in twigs or cover yourself in bells, maybe your costume calls for burlap and a crown. For inspiration, you can always look to the costumes photographed by Phyllis Galembo, Charles Freger, Hans Silvester, and others. Look to ancient masks, tarot cards, faces in clouds and rocks and tree trunks, mythology- anywhere as long you’re also looking inward.
When it comes time to actually create your costume, make as much of it as possible: the act of creation is as important as the final result. Use materials that are found, foraged, and thrifted and keep an eye to collecting and making things that can be reused year after year- even if the costume itself evolves.
Then, finally, if you still need to: buy a thing or two. Over 13 Halloweens, my daughter and I have collected a basic witch hat, a crow mask, a decent quality grey wig, and skeletal gloves with extra long fingers. Except for the dangly jangly skeleton earrings I got from Claire’s Boutique in middle school and still wear every October, I’m pretty sure these are the only things we’ve bought new and they get used and refashioned year after year.
Bats, cats and owls all have night vision. They- along with spiders, who don’t see well in any light- are all denizens of the dark half of every day and, by extension, of every year. Their association with the half of the year that our society fears has given them a reputation for being fearsome too- and yet something about them beckons to us.
Is it that they scare us? Or is it that we’re drawn to their ability to move comfortably in the places that scare us? What would it mean to you to be able to ‘see in the dark’- childhood blank spots or bends in the road ahead that you can’t see around?
Being able to ‘see in the dark’ also suggests the ultimate darkness: the void that can only be entered through the portal of death. Of course we would be unsettled by creatures that have an intimate connection with the thing our society (absurdly) fears the most. And that brings us to……
It’s an absolute tragedy for a society to condition its people to fear the inevitable.
Our distant ancestors loved life and each other as much, if not more, than we do, yet they didn’t fear it’s unavoidable end. Rather, they accepted and even appreciated it as an inextricable part of life.
If not for the death of the sun every evening, when would they rest? If not for the deaths of trees and plants, how would the soil be nourished to bring forth new growth? If not for the deaths of every single human and animal, how could they visit the other side and come back again in new bodies?
Clarissa Pinkola Estes talks about death being the midwife who helps you into the world and eventually out of it and walks beside you all the time in between.
To enrich your life with more death, put up pictures of loved ones who’ve ‘dropped their robes’ and honor them with flowers, treats, and candles. Or do as the famously happy Bhutanese do and meditate on death at least 3 times a day. I can tell you from personal experience that it doesn’t hasten death’s arrival!
I hope you're able to use some of these simple suggestions to fill your October- and the rest of these slow, quiet seasons- with meaning and connection.
If you're interested in following the advent calendar, with its daily activities following the principles above, it's right here: