My two-year-old grandson tells me there is a lion living in my basement. “Let’s go see the lion, Ma-Maw,” he says. I know my part. I cover my face in fear and cry out, “Oh, no! I don’t like having lions in the house! Luc growls, and then lets out a full-throated roar. I scream and he laughs. It’s a good game, one he never tires of playing.
Then I beg Luc to ask the lion to leave. Go back to the zoo or the African savannah, anywhere but my basement. Luc walks out of the room and comes back, his task quickly and bravely accomplished. We are safe until the next wild animal comes calling.
There are real fears in Luc’s life: waking in darkness, and Mama and Papa leaving him with a babysitter, and the word, “No,” spoken to him, not by him, and the actual lion, majestic, in the local zoo.
These things are scary, in part, because he has neither understanding of, or control over, them. He does not understand the cycle of light and darkness. He does not understand why his parents would ever want to leave him, or why they would ever deny him any desire. And real lions are very large and very loud.
Our game gives him the chance to call the shots. He summons the lion and dismisses him, while I, Keeper of the Cookies, am rendered small and sobbing by the spectacle. I am in trouble and Luc rescues me. Like all healthy play, this allows Luc to try out different roles he will need one day when the goblins under the bed belong, not to him, but to the children in his care.
Halloween is this game writ large. Children are allowed outside at night, a time, as every child knows, when he is supposed to be indoors and in bed. Night belongs to adults and scary creatures too terrible to name. Night is when shapes emerge from the closet and when the house, perhaps sprung to life, begins to moan and creak.
We are not a playful people. We might welcome a drunken Mardi Gras, but we would flee from a dancing one.
But on one night of the year — and, in many places, a cold one — children roam the streets. The sidewalks are filled with them, as if, like Luc with the laundry lion, they had taken charge. In this world, on this night, children are the actors and adults the watchers, the flashlight holders and the walking coat racks. Baths and bedtimes wait while armies of masked children ring doorbells and watch as sweets cascade into their bags. They walk about and return home safe, their arms filled with forbidden delights.
Children are abroad on Halloween, but not as themselves, small and dependent creatures. They walk the streets as princes and princesses, superheroes, knights, cowboys and cowgirls, firefighters, nurses, doctors and astronauts. They roam around dressed as wild animals. They are strong and smart and brave and true. They are fleet. They have superpowers. They are holding the candy.
They are practicing: for independence, for responsibility, for authority. Children need to rehearse their adult lives.
Not all children choose benign masks and costumes. Witches and ghosts and vampires and zombies and some variation on the blood-soaked ax murderer show up at my door each year. As the children grow older the costumes grow more grotesque. Even cheap imitations of violence and death have the power to frighten us. But if children must rehearse their adult lives, adults must remember theirs. Christian adults are those who know that, though death is the last enemy to be destroyed, it will be destroyed.
And still we forget.
Like Luc practicing real courage before the pretend lion, Halloween invites us to practice real faith before pretend death, and real delight before its pretend destroyer.
We are not a playful people. We might welcome a drunken Mardi Gras, but we would flee from a dancing one. We are more comfortable with Lenten ashes than with Easter flames. But Halloween demands that we play. There is simply no other way to keep the day. We are encouraged to mock death and all its slaves, to don masks and disguises, to eat candy and make mischief.
We are encouraged to act as though what we say we believe is, indeed, true: death has no power over us. We do not need to fear, not even in the darkest night.