Halloween in Spain
A few days ago I arrived in Spain to visit some dear colleagues who took me to a café full of people who did not seem to be working.
“Wow, the unemployment really is high in Spain” I said, “you are in a deep economic crisis aren’t you?”
“Oh no”, they replied, “November 1st is a national holiday for remembering the dead and bringing flowers to the cemetery with family. “
Just the night before my Sufi spiritual family were celebrating Halloween in upstate New York – probably the most celebrated popular holiday in the USA. It is so much fun to dress up as your most feared vampire or monster and demand sweets from strangers.
But where does this festival come from and does anyone else do anything similar? Well, at the end of winter Jews celebrate Purim, Greeks dress up for Apokries, and those peoples within reach of the ancient Persian influence do something with Haji Firoozeh around New Year’s Spring equinox. I’m sure there are such festivals in every corner of the world. So really, why do we do it?
In Europe generally, the holiday combined “All hallows eve” (Halloween) October 31st, followed by “All souls day” November 1st. First you were supposed to appease and placate the scary and restless spirits of the dead with food, then next day all the good souls were supposed to arrive.
Going to a cemetery and remembering a deceased loved one is not that. It is about digging out cherished memories and re-visiting them, crying a bit, looking at the old photographs and generally being in control of these images. They are not spontaneous.
But Halloween and All Souls is not about being in control. It’s about contacting something bigger than us, however scary, and not being in control.
Is it enough just to celebrate the scary side of things and wait for next year to become scarier? I don’t think so. I think feeding sweets to the ghouls and vampires isn’t meant to be a vampire approval ceremony. It about putting sweetness in the mouth of fear itself. Sending out positive prayers to our most feared entities and waiting for them to return as helpful blessings or beings.
This is essentially a group prayer, nationally and internationally.
In this catholic country of Spain, I think of Jesus’ parable:
“When an unclean spirit goes out of a man it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, “I will return to the house I left.” When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first.”
The interpretation I like best is by Stylianos Atteshlis, which paraphrased, says that the unclean spirit is a “desire-thought” (a thought based on desire and not on reason). The seven other wicked spirits are the affirmation of that thought returning through all a person’s senses. But when this desire-thought is opposed by repeated reasoned thought or prayer which is sent out, then such an entity can be dis-energised and eventually won’t come back.
I believe that on All Souls one must wait for the good souls to arrive, like a moment when a person is blessed with the presence of a good protecting friend or is suddenly filled with the genuine and unexpected image of a cherished loved one. This is spontaneous. We are not in control of these moments.
In Sufi language learned from Shaykh Taner Ansari’s sohbets, this is like “giving back to Allah”. Maybe we can say that placating the restless souls with sweets, and returning their image to earth as a libation, surrendering attachments to those cherished memories and old photos that we like to control, is like “giving back to Allah”, praying for peace, and then waiting to see what arrives, without expectation.