I love Halloween! We had a number of trick or treaters last night, from soldiers to zombies, and of course a veritable heaven host of more Pocahontas. We even had one bumble bee. Precious!
I always get a laugh when people talk of Halloween as if it is a secular holiday. No more than Christmas! I want to ask them about truly secular holidays they “don’t celebrate”: July 4, Labor Day, Thanksgiving. And what about how we dress Christmas up as if it is the chief of all secular holidays? This is usually complete with a plastic Santa out front and Christmas trees, gifts, and parties all over. I always want to remind folks as well, that Christmas was a pagan holiday that was later taken over by the church and given more “Christian” roots.
The truth is that Halloween, or All Hallow’s Eve, has deep Christian roots as well. Yes it has been commercialized. Yes, it has problems. As I have mentioned, so does Christmas these days. And what does an Easter Bunny and chocolate have to do with Easter?
The true origins of Halloween lie with the ancient Celtic tribes who lived in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Brittany. For the Celts, November 1 marked the beginning of a new year and the coming of winter. The night before the new year, they celebrated those who had died. During this festival, Celts believed the souls of the dead—including ghosts, goblins and witches—returned to mingle with the living. In order to scare away the evil spirits, people would wear masks and light bonfires.
As with many of the secular holidays of Europe, like Saturnalia(now Christmas) the Church found a way to infiltrate and “Christianize” this holiday. The Church too, had a day to celebrate those who had died, and in 835, Pope Gregory IV moved the celebration for all the martyrs (later All Saints) from May 13 to November 1. The night before became known as All Hallow’s Eve or “holy evening.” Eventually the name was shortened to the current Halloween. It was the night before the true celebration, All Saint’s Day on Nov. 1. (We do Christmas the same way, remember? Christmas Eve!)
The purpose of these feasts is to remember those who have died, whether they are officially recognized by the Church as saints or not. It is a celebration of the “communion of saints,” which reminds us that the Church is not bound by space or time.
It is also, in many ways, a time for Christians to laugh in the face of death, for death has lost its sting. We dress up in masks. We even dress as dead people sometimes. We make a comedy of death. And what did the cross do? We, as Christians, stand as a people unafraid by death. We rejoice in the resurrection, and in doing so we shake off our moral fears and preach Christ, the Lord of Life.
(The educator in me is always interested when children start to get hooked. Here is our chance! It is difficult to talk about difficult concepts like death or loss with children. Halloween could be our way “in” to an age-appropriate conversation about grandma who is no longer here, for grief and loss are just as real for those little ones.)
And so, even though Halloween may seem like a very secular holiday, and in many ways it has become so, there is a distinctly Christian aspect to all this “ghouls and goblins”. So laugh with me, and mock death itself, for “Death, where is your sting. O grave, where is your victory!”