It was the night before Hallowe’en and I found myself in a dimly lit, spooky-looking Cathedral. Although I wandered through several NYC cathedrals a few years ago to look at the architecture, I haven't actually sat down in a church of any sort since Christmas of my fourteenth year. But here I was, sitting on a folding chair in the darkened Cathedral of St. John the Divine, staring up at the dimly lit ceiling that angled steeply towards the heavens. The chair dug uncomfortably into my back and the large old man who was crammed in close to me was breathing too loudly. I felt rather than saw him turn his head to whisper loudly to his wife. I was ready to be annoyed.
Suddenly, the bold clear melody of Bach's Toccata [et Fuga] in D Minor cut through the air like a knife, carving vast, powerful silences in the spaces between each note. It was a message from my past. Unexpectedly, magically, I was simultaneously transported and thrilled by the majesty of music; I was a brand-new person once more, living solely in the moment, absorbed in sound. I was a child again, momentarily freed from my adult body and worries and disappointments. The fat man seated next to me fell silent and seemed to dissolve away into the darkness.
I came to this Hallowe’en celebration out of curiosity. Despite being raised and educated in a very conservative Lutheran tradition with strong ties to the Catholic church during my early years, I had never known any church to celebrate Hallowe’en by showing old horror flicks and by cramming itself full of demons, ghosts and walking corpses to entertain the public as St. John the Divine was doing. Apparently, my religious education was lacking; this is an annual event here. So I came with two friends**, prepared to enjoy the odd juxtaposition of a christian place of worship serving as the stage for what still is widely perceived as a pagan holiday.
Like all church holidays, Hallowe’en originated from ancient pagan traditions. Hallowe’en's roots are in native Druidic practices that were adopted, with only slight modifications, by the Catholic Church centuries later. But why did the Druids (and later, the Catholics) choose this day to celebrate this particular festival? In Celtic Ireland in 5th century BC, the end of the harvest was October 31, known as "Samhain" (sow in; from the Celtic sam + hain meaning "end of summer"), which was followed by cold, dark winters full of death. Predictably, this time became a festival of the dead.
The Celtics believed that the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead blurred on Samhain, thus allowing the spirits of the dead to visit the living and to possess them, if they desired. So the living extinguished all flames in their homes and later re-lit them from a sacred community bonfire where they made sacrifices of grains and animals to pacify the mischievous, often destructive spirits roaming amongst them. The living also dressed up as ghouls themselves, crashing around their neighborhoods and generally being obnoxious so as to deceive real ghosts into believing that they too, were dead and therefore, not worthy of possession. Perhaps to drive their point home, Samhain was observed with three days of pranks.
The Catholics came into the Hallowe’en picture much later. In 835, Pope Gregory attempted to replace this pagan festival of the dead with a church-sanctioned observance by designating 31 October as Hallowe’en, 1 November as All Hallows (All Saints) Day, and 2 November as All Souls Day -- all dedicated to honoring the lives of those who had died during the previous year. In some countries, this holiday made a smooth transition into established Catholic practices, most notably Mexico's Día de los Muertos, which has its own roots in ancient Aztec traditions.
Abruptly, Bach's Toccata ended in a brief moment of reverberating sound, followed by softly dying echoes, then enfolding silence. After a brief pause, the peculiar 1920s horror film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was projected onto a large screen suspended high above our heads near the front of the cathedral, complete with digital organ accompaniment (sadly, St. John the Divine's real pipe organ was badly damaged by a fire in 2001 and is still undergoing repair). I had never seen a silent film with a live musical accompaniment, so I was intrigued. Does the accompanist watch the film and adjust his playing to it? Or does he ("he" was Timothy Brumfield, in this case) precisely time every scene and play accordingly? Unfortunately, I was unable to locate the organist later to ask him about this.
After the film ended, it was followed by The Procession of the Ghouls, a prolonged and unruly parade of "puppets"; humans encased in a wide variety of costumes ranging from wraithlike monks robed in black, gliding ghosts, horned demons with pitchforks for tails, pencil-thin corpses that stood 10 feet tall and other creatures of the night (I was most pleased to see what resembled a Great Horned Owl -- a cousin of mine -- represented among the costumes). The most ghoulish (and mobile) of these creatures singled out particular audience members to torment by chasing them mercilessly -- sometimes into the streets and between stopped cars filled with astonished people before their screaming victims managed to escape by boarding a bus or ducking into a restaurant.
On the way out of the cathedral, I lingered again near the entrance as I had when I first entered to enjoy the lovely cello playing by an unnamed human skeleton with straw poking out of his, er, naked and exposed skull. I wanted to ask the skeleton to identify the piece he was playing but the crowd made it impossible to approach too closely. While my friends and I stood around watching ghoulish antics and appreciating the music, we noticed a toddler dressed up in a neon orange Tigger the Tiger costume and perched on his father's shoulders, waving. The skeleton waved back, toothy jaws grinning broadly in the gloom, with barely a pause in his music.
** Hedwig the Owl extends her sincerest thanks to her two friends, G and A, who graciously donated to the Unemployed Loser Fund to cover the cost of her ticket (surprise! this was an unexpected expense) and a delicious meal afterwards.