Two thousand years ago, the Celts were scared of winter. And not just the cold and dark of that season but the deaths that inevitably followed due to infections and the privations of their world.
They had very few options other than to dress warmly and pile up as much food and fuel as they could.
But humans are a spiritual folk – and by that I mean that their tendency is to look past the physical to the metaphysical for answers and help. And so at the end of the harvest and on the eve of winter, the Celts would light fires to ward off the dark and don ferocious costumes to scare off ghosts and demons.
These customs persisted and became incorporated in Christian celebrations of saints and martyrs in the eighth century, with folks lighting fires and donning costumes to scare off demons the night before they celebrated the “hallowed” or holy folks who’d died.
This “hallowed eve” became Halloween and still persists today. And while I’m not quite sure if dressing up as Ruth Bader Ginsburg and tromping down your street with a flashlight so you can ask the neighbors for double-bagged candy fulfills the traditions of our forebears, there are still a lot of parallels, especially this year.
We have been warned and warned again about a second wave of COVID infections this winter. These predictions are based on past pandemics – see the Flu Pandemic of 1918 which came roaring back in October-November and decimated the population that winter – and on the behavior of corona viruses in general – they like crowded, overheated, stuffy, indoor conditions, i.e. our world in winter.
We have also been warned that steps to curb the spread of COVID – in particular, shutting down businesses – will lead to further financial hardship.
And we have been warned that our country is divided. We are at daggers drawn and it’s doubtful that the election next week will bring about a rapprochement any time soon.
So there is a lot to fear.
But I’d like to dig a little bit deeper.
We can certainly fear infection and financial insecurity and public discord. But I suspect an awful lot of the agita out there is due more to a heightened sense of powerlessness than anything else. And that gives us a lot in common with the Celts.
What did the Celts do when faced with the perils and uncertainties of winter? They admitted they were scared. They spent days making costumes to scare off the demons and ghosts lying in wait. Because they knew that by hiding their vulnerable humanity under a wolf’s head or a bearskin, they were borrowing the courage they needed.
We still do that today. It’s no accident that the militias we’ve seen in our streets – whether it’s “Proud Boys” or “Antifa” - or the protestors supporting Black Lives Matter, have elected to dress similarly, whether it’s in camo or all black or T-shirts emblazoned with slogans. These “costumes” denote the group or cause the militias and protestors represent and give the individuals the courage they need to raise their voices.
Because no one wants to face their fears alone.
The Celts made a party of it, gathering around a fire and baring their borrowed fangs at the night. Because what can scare you about the night when you’re alone - the unknown monsters in the dark - becomes an adventure when you’re in a group. Any child will tell you this – it’s what makes sleepovers and Halloween fun.
With their “hallowed” eve, the Christians added saints and martyrs, which gave us hope. Look at those human beings who blazed a path for us! Who used their borrowed courage to make life more just, more compassionate, more humane! We in turn borrow courage from them, protesting, acting, legislating in their name, in their honor.
Modernity added the ask. With our identity hidden, we’re suddenly brave enough to go door to door asking for sweets. It’s good practice for life. Ask for what you need and make sure that what you need will make you happy – that it’s sweet.
So call your friends and make a plan and dress up and at the very least go for a starlit walk together on Halloween. It will make you feel good and give you courage. And by all means eat something sweet.
Because we are going to need our friends and our courage and lots of energy in the next few months.
And we will need to be very clear about our asks. Start by looking at your own life. What has changed for you in the past year? Are you happier? Safer? More financially secure?
What sort of changes can you make to increase your happiness, safety and financial security?
How can you help create a more abundant and equitable community?
With an election next week, we have a terrific opportunity to make these needs known. Start by thinking carefully about who best represents your values and whose plans are most likely to fulfill your needs and asks. Look at all the races – local, statewide and federal. Make a voting plan and cast your votes. And then commit to working with your community to help us all get through the coming winter.
(Thank you so much for all your emails. Reach me at WelcomeToThePandemic@gmail.com. And find me on Twitter at @epagenyc or on Facebook at ElizabethPage.)