The Halo Effect of haloes

Do you ever wonder about haloes -the ones sometimes painted behind people’s heads, I mean? When I first saw one in a book at Sunday school I wondered why Jesus’ head always seemed to block the sun; they never showed it higher up in the sky, or over his shoulders or anything. I asked about it, of course, but Miss Halliday, the woman in charge of us, said it wasn’t actually the sun; it was a halo. Only God and holy people got them, she explained. She had no idea why, she confessed, although she figured it might have something to do with the fact that the Sun was pretty close to heaven -and it allowed you to see things, she added, calling this an allegory, or something. Because I didn’t know what that was, I missed reference, but I could see that others were also puzzled at the answer.

So did the Devil get a dark circle, or maybe a moon behind his  head, I remember my friend Teddy asking her just as we were being instructed to turn to a certain chapter in our Bibles to change the subject. Nothing, Miss Halliday answered rather irritably -the devil got nothing and that was his punishment. I sensed that she was probably using another allegory, but this one directed at me and Teddy for not bringing Bibles. Sunday schools were like that in those days, though: weak on facts and strong on Bibles.

I have to admit that I came to accept the presence of haloes in religious drawings as my childhood wore thin however; you knew where you were with a halo -the kind of person you were looking at. If they had one, they had obviously done something good for religion or whatever; sort of like medals in sports, I imagined, but without the colour-code to define rank. Teddy, though, was pretty certain that they were sorted by size, and instead of going to Sunday school, I remember we spent one Sunday morning using the rulers we used at real school actually measuring all the haloes in the Kids Book of Saints. The children’s books were kept in the ‘Gathering Room’ where the adults were supposed to meet for cups of coffee and stale biscuits after church. Except for the occasional smoker hiding in there during the sermon, the room was pretty empty during the hymns and prayers, though. Timing was everything.

Still, Teddy and I were in danger of coming to no firm conclusions, because we had to keep ducking behind chairs or hiding in the tiny kitchen. Then, Mr. George caught us holed up in the pantry when he opened its door looking for an ashtray.

“Thought you kids were supposed to be in Sunday school with Miss Halliday,” he said with a cough and a smile he was unsuccessfully trying to wipe off his face. He glanced curiously at the picture book, no doubt hoping there were more than just pictures of saints we were looking at.

“We were just measuring the haloes, Mister George,” I decided to confess.

Teddy nodded his head. “Yeah, we wondered if the more important saints got bigger ones…”

Once his initial disappointment had cleared, Mr. George seemed rather interested in our investigation. “I’ve often wondered about that myself,” he admitted with a smile. “What did you find?” he asked, and leafed through some of the pictures for himself, hope clearly still alive in his eyes.

“Well…” Teddy glanced at me for corroboration. “We couldn’t really tell, ‘cause some of the heads are different sizes, so…” He pointed at some examples in the book. “So, it’s hard to tell.”

Mr. George smiled in agreement. “I see what you mean…” He examined a couple of pictures more closely. “I suppose there is another factor that might complicate your assessments, though…”

We both looked at him; what had we forgotten?

“I don’t see any mention of the saints being ranked by importance,” he said with a little shrug. “So how would you know if any different measurements were related more to their head sizes, than to their holiness?”

Teddy and I looked at each other for a moment, sighed in unison, and then closed the book.

Mr. George peeked through the door into the main church and realized the sermon wasn’t over yet; he had some time left, so he sat down with us. “Don’t be discouraged, though. It’s important to be curious,” he said, clearly impressed with our search. “I’m sure that in the future, somebody will ask the same question you both have… In fact,” -his face almost split in half with a huge smile- “It might even be one of you, and you’ll become famous…”

Suddenly we could hear the congregation shuffling in their seats, so with a wink of one of his rheumy eyes, Mr. George disappeared through the church door. Sadly, neither Teddy nor I followed up on our ground-breaking Halo investigation -Teddy became a used car salesman; and although I did not become famous either, I did keep a weather-eye open for any breaking news about haloes. Some things, however, maintain a low profile; some things just do not make it onto the evening news.

Still, my memory was tweaked by an essay in a BBC culture feature about the history of haloes; I could only hope someone was finally measuring them:

But, as it turned out, the article would have got us in real trouble with Miss Halliday: haloes weren’t just Christian. ‘Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and Greek mythology are usually regarded as utterly distinct religions, largely defined by their differences. But if you just look at them, you will see a symbol that connects them all – the halo.’ Of course this was way beyond Miss Halliday’s pay-grade; anyway, I think she just volunteered.

The halo’s origin is somewhat obscure, especially since there are so many variations on the theme: discs, flames, rays, and more -all of which would, unfortunately, have made ruler-measurements rather complicated had we known at the time. But Teddy and I had only ever seen the official United Church haloes on our illuminati and apparently they all had to be discs according to Protestant theological diktat.

‘The earliest examples of a disc halo come from the 300s BC in the religious art of ancient Iran. It seems to have been conceived as a distinguishing feature of Mithra, deity of light in the Zoroastrian religion.’ I’m pretty sure the United Church Sunday schools were not licenced to teach us that kind of thing -at least not the one we went to in Winnipeg anyway, so I don’t blame Miss Halliday.

I think in those days, we were just supposed to accept things like haloes, and not ask too many embarrassing questions. Dogma was dogma. Certainty helped to keep the pews warm and the little sealed tithe envelopes continuing to drop into the collection plates.

But, looking back on that pre-diluvial Winnipeg, there were still the occasional Mister Georges who were more interested in the size of haloes than the content of the sermons, so who knows, eh?


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