It's the time of year when pumpkins turn into jack-o'-lanterns, and one night soon your neighborhood is likely to be filled with a slew of little witches, goblins, ghosts and other ghoulish creatures squealing "trick or treat" as they make their rounds.
When you stop to think about it, that's a strange custom. Halloween has become a time when the tables are turned, a time when, like Mardi Gras, we suspend the rules and let children take control, at least symbolically.
These colorful customs have become a cherished part of childhood, but the fun of Halloween has largely obscured its intriguing cultural and religious roots as a time for the living to remember the dead.
Dr. Michael C. Kearl, a sociologist at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, notes that our society's version of Halloween has evolved into a curious ritual for marking boundaries in our lives, boundaries that often symbolize the line that separates life from death.
The customs we encourage children to observe on this day provide a way of marking the boundaries between their world and the world of adults. Moreover, Halloween comes at the end of harvesttime, thus marking the boundary between the bounty of summer and the symbolic death that fall represents. These boundaries are important symbols, because it is by marking boundaries -- recognizing the limits of childhood, of summer and its bounty and of life itself -- that we define our lives and find meaning in them.
Our name for Halloween -- a contraction of "Hallows' Eve" -- reflects religious roots. "All Hallows" was the medieval English name for the celebration of All Saints Day on Nov. 1. But the customs we associate with Halloween evolved from the ancient Celts, for whom Nov. 1 was the first day of winter. That event was a boundary worth marking, and the Celts dedicated the night before to their lord of death.
In Celtic lore, the dead were allowed time off on this night to revisit the living. Thus it was also a time for the living to remember the dead. Young people would dress up as their dead relatives (sometimes as animals if the relatives had been considered evil) and carried lighted turnips, the forerunner of today's jack-o'-lanterns.
But as Dr. Kearl notes, it is only recently that society could allow young children to be so flippant about skeletons, ghosts and other symbols of death. For earlier generations, these children were, as he puts it, society's "death lepers," the people most vulnerable to death and, therefore, those with whom people were reluctant to form strong emotional attachments.
For instance, in contrast to our society's ferocious debates about the sanctity of unborn life, the early American settlers lost so many offspring that it was not uncommon for children not to receive a name until they had survived early childhood. That was one way for families to try to shield themselves emotionally against a child's death.
Dr. Kearl also points out an irony that is evident in our current Halloween observances. Now that children are among those in our society who are least vulnerable to death, Halloween has brought grim reminders of other dangers they face.
In recent years, the innocent fun of trick-or-treating has fallen prey to some cruel tricks. Instances of razor blades in apples or poison in candy have brought dramatic proof that parents cannot entirely trust the fate of their children to the wider community. Threats of harm have brought real danger to dampen the mood of celebration.
But that caution probably reflects life accurately. Even in festive times, the boundaries between safety and danger and between life and death remain all too real.
Send your comments and questions about death and dying to Sara Engram, Mortal Matters, The Evening Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore, Md. 21278.
Universal Press Syndicate