Memento Mori...Why I Love Halloween

I love Halloween in Southern California for two reasons.

The first is the weather. In Southern California the weather is still nice enough at the end of October that you can be outside in flimsy costumes after sunset without getting cold. Further north or east, children have to wear parkas over their costumes and dodge ice on the sidewalks when they go trick-or-treating, which defeats the purpose of wearing a costume in the first place. A wizard wearing a parka is dumb, and I remember preferring to freeze rather than sully the presentation of my alternate persona with a layer of winter clothing.

Halloween is also the only American holiday on which you open your door to strangers. If you are lucky enough to live in a neighborhood in which Halloween is popular, like mine, the doors not only swing open, it’s warm enough that they stay open, and we are often invited inside for more food, drink and fun, and we actually socialize with neighbors.

Thanksgiving and Christmas are family holidays -- the streets are quiet as people nestle in for quiet times away from the world. Independence Day, Labor Day, and Memorial Day may have parades, but by mid-day they end up becoming barbecues to which you need an invitation. Halloween brings neighbors together.

When Lily becomes too old to trick-or-treat, we will transform our own home into the same kind of open house, part party and halfway station where parents can rest their legs, adjust costumes, and eat, drink and laugh before the kids demand that they hit the streets again to gather more candy.

The vast parking lots of So-Cal are also put to good use on All Hallow’s Eve. If your neighborhood isn’t ideal for trick-or-treating, you can pay and bring your kids to a “Trunk-or-Treat” event. You park your car, decorate it, and the kids hit dozens of cars for candy instead of homes. It doesn’t feel that odd, since your car is your second home when you live in California.

The other reason I like a SoCal Halloween is that it’s imbued with a gentler reminder of Death. Let’s face it, Death is an important part of Halloween, yet it seems less threatening here. Autumn has no biting cold wind, and as the daylight dwindles down the sunsets are red and gold, and bright colors are still everywhere.

The Mexican holiday, Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is November 2nd, but it seeps into American Halloween here in the West, with bright colorful skulls and dancing skeletons in sombreros. Stories with Ichabod Crane and Rip Van Winkle are still told at Halloween, but they belong to distant New England with its stormy dark forests.

As a child, seeing the happy skeletons and the colorful skulls appear just as the leaves were changing colors and falling from the trees made my own eventual demise more tolerable and understandable. Everything dies; it’s not such a bad thing. It’s what you do with your life that matters.

The skulls and skeletons also remind me of the Latin phrase Memento Mori -- remember that you die. The Romans used this phrase to remind one another of the briefness of life, and that death makes us all equal. In ancient Rome they would print MM at the end of certain streets as a reminder to young and old, rich and poor that we are all just people. Death is coming, so remember to live life each day to it’s fullest. By honoring death, you thus honor life. The flip side of Memento Mori lis Carpe Diem ... seize the day. This is the day that God hath made, rejoice and be glad in it.

The Day of the Dead ... Memento Mori.

I have always been drawn to the Memento Mori paintings from the Renaissance, in which a young man or woman contemplates a flower, a skull, and an hour glass. Life, death, and the passage of time.

I therefore mark the passage of time in October, right at Halloween. I think back an remember what costumes our family wore in previous years -- the Addams Family, Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, and Gypsy Fortune Tellers. I open drawers and find clothes I haven’t worn since Autumn of last year. I find my father’s old watch and put it on again, to remind me of things past. This moment is here, now it’s passing, this moment is here, but now it’s passing. As the seconds tick and the years pile up, I am faced with the truth that I no longer have the time to pursue every goal, or the time to delay my long-standing dreams much longer. It’s now or never.

Memento Mori. Carpe Diem. No regrets, no fear.

Some people reassess their lives this way at New Years, some do it on their birthdays. I am always asleep on New Year’s Eve, and my birthday is in May, when the world is fresh and my life is full and busy. In October, my life slows down now enough for me to see it. Autumn and Halloween hold golden light and warm evenings, with running children and laughter and costumes and hot food and deep glasses of wine with good friends, and I ponder with gratitude how I got here and what I still can accomplish before I shed my own mortal coil.

Lily and I are making our own Day of the Dead skull. It’s paper-mache, and we’re painting it with bright colors, flowers, hearts, and covering it with glitter. For Lily it is a fun Halloween art project that reassures her that skulls aren’t scary. For me, it will become my own Memento Mori, and I will draw MM on the side.