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Starting Point

A time for the dead to slip back


Once upon a time there was a pirate, a witch and a boy who called himself Davy Crockett. They roamed the neighborhood holding pillowcases, knocked on neighbors’ doors and sang out, “Trick-or-treat!” I called them Michael, Karen and David, my three children. When I remember being a father of young children, there they remain, icons of an easier time -- easier because now I know better. I, too, will someday die and be remembered on All Souls’ Day.

When my three children opened their pillowcases and admired the collection of Hershey Bars, Milky Ways, Tootsie Roll Pops and Cracker Jacks, they did not know Halloween began in 5th-century Celtic Ireland where summer ended on Oct. 31.

I liked watching my wife adjust Karen’s witch hat as she waved her broomstick over her mother’s head casting a spell. We, like our ancestors, do not want to be possessed, so for centuries we put out the fires in our homes on Halloween so that the dead would not feel invited. We dressed in ragged clothes and crazy masks to frighten away roaming spirits in search of living bodies to possess.

My children possessed me from the first moments of their lives.

When Michael slipped on his pirate patch for the first time, he let out a loud pirate cry. He wanted to ring every doorbell and hide in the bushes. Children in long-ago New England tipped over outhouses and loosened the hinges of their neighbors’ gates. David was pleased that he shared a name with the king of the Alamo, and he slept wearing his coonskin cap for weeks.

We once believed that October was the time when the space between our world and the hereafter was the thinnest, an easy time for the dead to slip back as black cats, a belief that can be traced to the Celts and can still be seen in Hallmark cards.

Just before my wife and I escorted the children around the neighborhood for their candy collection, we carved the pumpkin and placed a candle in its belly and set the jack-o’-lantern on the stoop of our small house. The myth goes that in the 18th century an Irishman named Jack tricked the devil to climb a tree. Once the devil sat on the branch, Jack quickly carved a cross into the trunk that prevented the devil from climbing down.

At Jack’s death, he was denied entrance into heaven because he treated the devil so unkindly, and the devil wouldn’t allow him into hell because of the trick Jack played on him, so Jack’s spirit had to wander over the earth forever. The devil pitied Jack and gave him a piece of coal to illuminate his way through the darkness. Jack placed the piece of glowing coal inside a hollow turnip. Poor Jack with his lantern.

In the late evening, Davy Crockett traded all his Baby Ruths, and the witch gave him all her M&Ms. The pirate gave up for nothing his Juicy Fruits to anyone who wanted them. In Europe centuries ago, people walked from house to house where they were given soul cakes in memory of all the people who had died the year before.

Just before I went to bed that night, I gathered up a Davy Crockett, a witch and a pirate costume, folded them neatly into a cardboard box marked “Halloween,” and carried the box into the attic. The box has not been opened for 15 years.

Each autumn many people in Mexico celebrate Los Dias de los Muertos, or the Days of the Dead. They imagine their ancestors return in the form of the migrating Monarch butterflies.

I remember … I remember my three little Celts flapping the wings of their pajamas, as the devil grumbled in the maple tree, the neighbor’s cat meowed, and the light in the belly of the jack-o’-lantern dimmed.

Christopher de Vinck is a public school administrator and lives in Pompton Plains, N.J.

National Catholic Reporter, October 25, 2002