Dressing for Armageddon

October 31, 1994|By STEPHEN VICCHIO

''The sole purpose of an education is to know a good person when we see one.

William James,

''Talks to Teachers''

Halloween: All Hallows' Eve, a holy evening when the souls of the dead were thought to roam the earth, some returning to expectant loved-ones, while others effected long-awaited revenge. The dead wandered among the living until the evening of the following day, All Hallows, what is now called All Saints Day. Then, promptly at sundown, the shades returned whence they came, having provided a 24-hour reminder of the ubiquitous human need to make the invisible, visible.

Among the ancient Celts, October 31 was the feast of Sambain, New Year's Eve -- a fire festival where huge conflagrations turned the Irish and Scottish hills into fiery mountains, a kind of jTC fire insurance erected to ward off the return of menacing spirits with perfect recall.

Later the Celtic Sambain became the Christian All Hallows' Eve, and the bonfire became a convenient way of convincing the Celts that conversion to the true church was decidedly in their self-interest. On All Hallows' Day, 1755, the Lisbon earthquake struck with such a fury that by the end of the day the world had 40,000 newly restless souls to appease the following Halloween. On the next day, those who survived the Lisbon holocaust began burning heretics in impressive autos da fe designed to divine the cause and cure for God's great shaking of the earth. Historians tell us that the smoke from the bonfires was visible over most of the Iberian peninsula.

In those earlier times, people seemed so much clearer about what evil was and where it might be found, but they had not yet managed many of the impressive technological advancements that make our age so good at killing. We live in an age when the demons can't always be so easily distinguished from the rest of us. Unlike those who burned witches at the stake, with modern weaponry often we can not see far enough to watch the demons as they die. Perhaps this is another reason why our century has been so much better at killing each other than those who came before us.

In my own 1950s childhood, Halloween was a time to dress like the evil ones: itchy plastic masks and black cotton suits, complete with matching sets of painted patellas, femurs and phalanges; red satin satans with runny mascara and runny noses; and bed sheets transformed into replicas of a friendly ghost whose regular visitations could be seen all year long on Saturday morning cartoons.

Our 1950s depictions of evil seem so benign now -- at least until we understand that somebody's fathers and mothers were aiming nuclear warheads in those years at Soviet cities across eastern Europe and Asia. The parents of Soviet children were aiming them back at us. Every year around All Hallows' Eve, in grade schools all over America, children were taught something call ''duck and cover'' -- a maneuver that involved crawling under our wooden and wrought-iron desks during atomic-bomb practice and waiting for the all-clear sign.

When I was in the third grade, I dressed as a devil for Halloween. Each morning we dutifully assembled for 8 o'clock mass and proceeded en masse to the section reserved for the 50 or so members of my class. I felt more than a bit guilty that Halloween morning when my devil's tail went swishing up to the communion railing. At least I knew enough to keep my red pitchfork back in the pew.

That afternoon didn't go nearly as well. In the middle of parading our costumes before envious and costume-less girls in blue jumpers and boys with blue clip-on ties -- children with mothers devoid of imagination and a knack with cardboard -- the horn for atomic-bomb practice went off. I remember taking off my devil gloves and biting my fingernails, while waiting for Armageddon. Huddled under my desk, I prayed while staring at the wrought-iron feet that looked too much like cloven hoofs. My little red horns pressed to the shiny linoleum floor, I did not pray that the world would be saved. I prayed only that God would be able to tell the good guys from the bad ones.

Stephen Vicchio teaches philosophy at the College of Notre Dame.

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