I remember Hallowe'en as a young'un in Ayrshire, on Scotland's southwest coast. Trees which had been nothing but trees the day before suddenly became menacing, their gnarled limbs frozen in the daylight and just waiting for the night, dedicated to the dead from antiquity, to be released and go on the rampage. We would colour in pumpkins at school (few of us had seen a real one), then the lucky ones' Mums would cut out eyeholes in an old sheet and take them round the doors to be given sweets and peanuts. The emphasis, of course, would be on the Mass in honour of the saints the day after.
Shades of Gray
That's why I like Cynthia Weil's introductory lyrics to this song which, as well as introducing the theme, indicates the sometimes distorting lens with which we peer at our childhoods: when the world and I were young...Shades of Gray
Is the increase of social atomisation we perceive more than an artefact of memory? In 1966 Paul McCartney painted a picture of a city where somebody can literally die of loneliness and now, as then, the picture is all too recognisable. So instead of complaining about the sort of evil that is celebrated at Hallowe'en, is it not the social evil that we see that we should be fighting?
Hallowed be thy Name
Within the genteel tradition of the English Murder Ballad - eg the Beatles' Run for your Life, Tom Jones' Delilah and Tony Christie's I Did What I Did for Maria, there exists a subset wherein the murderer is awaiting execution, as in the Bee Gees' Got to Get a Message to You and Tom Jones' (again) Green Green Grass of Home. In Iron Maiden's Hallowed be thy Name, Bruce Dickenson voices the part of a prisoner in the condemned cell who is being visited by the Padre immediately before his execution. As he is led out a fellow prisoner cries a blessing, and this enables him to intone the words of the title as he stands on the scaffold.
For the Pagans
Hallowe'en is said to occupy the space that was once reserved for the pagan/Celtic Samhain, or summer's end, when the dark half of the year began. Some neo-pagans think of their dead ones at this time and, to tell you the truth, I have more respect for those who do this than for those who call themselves pagans but rejoice in the iconography of the Devil as he/she/it is represented in Christian art and literature - especially on Hallowe'en. So, for the Pagans - and all of us - here's Mike (Genesis) Rutherford's meditation on the difficult relationship his co-writer, BA Robertson, had with his grandfather, who died before he could see his grandchild.
Rabbi Ben A. states that the source of evil is misappropriation of the power of G‑d, while Fr Gabriele Amorth, Exorcist of the Diocese of Rome, gives his opinion in his two volumes of memoirs that Satan is interested not in sufferering but in souls. Both of these viewpoints indicate clearly the source of the deathcamps, the banality of evil and the Eleanor Rigbys expiring quietly and alone: us and our choices.
Here's Swedish heavy-metal band Sabaton with a historically-literate treatment of The Final Solution dealing with how "a nation in despair" chose to follow a man who not only turned "neighbours into foes" but embarked on a crusade of hate whose terrible echoes still ring around the world today. The YouTube video is powerful and disturbing; but I would say that we can only start to appreciate the power of evil by looking in the face the results of our choices and those of our ancestors.
In her biography of her mother, Holocaust survivor Edith Festinger, and her companions called We Never Lost Hope, Naomi Litvin writes of courage and friendship in Auschwitz, a light that outshines the evil around.
In Something inside so Strong, Labi Siffre sung of a light "that will outshine you" when interpreting Nelson Mandela's imprisonment.
Iron Maiden, who we saw earlier, have been accused of occultism with their albums, especially Number of the Beast, from which Hallowed be Thy Name comes. In fact, the band's chief songwriter enjoys writing about books and songs, and the title of the track is about The Omen, which is no more occult than Faust or parts of Dante's Divine Comedy - or indeed the Book of Revelation. Iron Maiden were not always all they seemed - for example, their song Two Minutes to Midnight compared the evils of abortion to those of the death camps and war.
"Occult" symbols also aren't always all they seem. For instance, recipients of letters from the quondam St Peter's Seminary in Glasgow were often taken aback to see an upside-down cross at the top; this is in honour of his reputed wish to be crucified upside-down - as is shown in the crest of St Peter's Episcopal Church in Amarillo, Texas.
Real occultism has many dangers, the chief of which - as Black Sabbath were warned regarding the cod-satanic ritual with which they used to begin their concerts - is getting what you wish for. Edgar Allan Poe dwelt upon this in his poem The Raven, where a young man who has been searching his books for a means to make his lamented love return recieves an unforeseen visitation...
(Click here to listen to James Earl Jones recite the entire poem)
Perhaps the opposite of trying to force a knowledge of that which our senses are not equipped to experience (or at least telling your customers that you've done so) is sharing in what is given to all, without price...
What's it all about?
Hallowe'en means "All Hallows Eve", the Hallows referred to being the Saints. This hymn by Bishop William Walsham Howe has become the classic for the feast, and is sung here by Dordt College Choir in interesting formation.
In many Christian churches there's a dialogue (conducted in various ranges of decibels) about the merits of the old as opposed to the new in terms of, among many other things, hymns. Our children will hand this dialogue on to theirs, but I must admit to being delighted by hearing children singing this. And what else could I end a music blog about darkness and light with?