All Hallows’ Eve

In a dream I was dreaming, of a recent morning before first light, there were children with lanterns wandering the streets. The dream was already fading, when I came to write it down, but there remained several indelible touches. Chiefmost was my surprise, upon descending (as the eye of some camera or some bird) from a height into the streams of them. It was like Hallowe’en, with children of all sizes, the larger holding the smaller on their hips, or leading them by hand. And somehow I knew that every one of them was an orphan.

The children were dressed as priests and deacons, monks and canons, nuns and religious sisters. As I looked about, I spotted a wee bishop under his great mitre, an abbot standing in his oversized sandals, an abbess, a prioress; and many more, from curious eastern or perhaps ancient orders. And some were in sheepskins, and some in rags; a shepherd leading a little lamb; some dressed as brides, some dressed as grooms; some carrying tools, as carpenters or masons; and one a feudal lord, followed by his retainers, each with a cross. And they were carrying, too, many kinds of lanterns, and some of them staffs, and bells, sacks or purses; and one of them preceding a little group, swinging a censer. But all were children, come to beg alms.

They turned, it seemed, through every street, and in the manner of a dream I was both among them, and watching the sea of lanterns, from afar. On the ground, I could see them treading before me, and around me. Try as I did I could not see the faces, uncannily shrouded in some way. I wanted to ask, “Who are you?” and “Who are you?” I wanted to hug the sweet little souls, but a voice was telling me, don’t touch them.

By many dark houses they walked, but at some there were adults, standing on their steps and porches, or in their open doorways. And when a child approached, each grown man or woman bowed, deeply and gravely. At which the child would solemnly bless him, and then be on his way.

*

The model for my dream was of course Hallowe’en, and the figures in the costumes like Hallowe’en kids, and yet the scene was not merry as I remember Hallowe’en from my own childhood. What I recall was a mediaeval spectacle, of sorts, in which the roles of children and adults were reversed, and there was a joke in which everyone was sharing, while pretending to long faces. It was ghosts and goblins and witches and sprites, portrayed with an innocence that can still be glimpsed, in some of the safer neighbourhoods. (Taking children round Parkdale is too much of a risk.)

Something different has however emerged today, to replace that innocence. The new mock-spiritual Hallowe’en is like the new city, in its childlessness.

A sign posted by the door of a house in Toronto’s liberal, upmarket Annex district, explained this evolution to me, a few years back. The house was decorated for a Hallowe’en party, which was apparently for grown-ups only. The sign told children not to ring, because no candy would be offered. “Please respect our privacy,” it concluded.

*

No mock-spiritual event can be entirely without content: for even the elimination of religion is, by its nature, a religious act. Eternity remains eternity, even while vigil is transformed into feast. Our stance towards the eternal is expressed in symbols, which have meaning even when no longer understood.

From the start of modern, “American” Hallowe’en, the jack-o’-lantern was the reigning symbol. It originated in Irish folklore, and came to our shores with the poor immigrants. The tale is of quick-witted, drunken Jack, invited by the Devil to climb a tree, who first carves a cross in the bark so the Devil cannot get him. He’ll not go to Hell, but after a life of “sin, drink, and mendacity” he’ll not be getting into Heaven either. Dead, he is first refused there, then sent to the other place. But spotting Jack at the Gates of Hell, the Devil hurls a lighted coal at him, from the infernal fires. He was cold, our Jack, but being Irish and clever, he hollows out a rutabaga (the original for our pumpkin), placing the coal inside to keep it from blowing out. With this he to this day wanders about the cosmos, looking for a place to call home.

Lonely we may be, through all eternity, but I’m not sure we still rise to Jack’s condition. Would we be worth a missile of hot coal?

Gentle reader may find a few more details in Dante, on the fate of souls that not even the Devil can be bothered to entertain.

*

My dream, I might mention, ended in terror. As I was waking the curtain of night pulled away, and light was shed on the nocturnal vision. These were not living children, I was somehow told, but rather the souls of the dead, walking in the costumage of holy saints. They were the spirits of all those little folk, massacred in the abortion clinics, restored mysteriously to flesh. And back from limbo they had come, prowling the city, in search of their own faces.

And so I had been watching their processions through the city, to the homes of their mothers and their fathers, asking only to be recognized as their own.