Many Christians today fear that Halloween has become too dark and even demonic. It certainly is less safe than in the mid 1960s when we went out in Chicagoland at night without armed escort, and when folks could still give out homemade goodies and caramel apples.
Nonetheless, there are Christian aspects and themes which pervade any Halloween activity that even Hollywood can not destroy . They flow from Halloween’s heritage as the eve of All Hallow’s day, commonly called All Saints day, and the following day of All Souls. The three days together have been known as “Allhallowstide” (tide=time, ala, Christmastide).
All Souls, a date to commemorate all the faithful departed, especially of the previous year, got started just before the end of the first millennium at the famous Benedictine abbey of Cluny in southern-eastern France by a predecessor of St. Bernard. The theological basis for All Souls is the doctrine that souls which upon departing from the body have not fully atoned for past sins are barred from seeing God, and that the faithful on earth not only can honor them but help them by prayers, alms, deeds and liturgies.
But All Saints goes much farther back. It may have its origins in the ancient Roman commemoration on May 13th of the Feast of the Lemures (i.e. spirits of unburied) in which folks tried to gain the goodwill of these restless and often malevolent spirits of the dead.
Just to be clear, a saint is not a perfect person. All saints, including Mother Teresa and John Paul II, lived imperfect lives under difficult circumstances without complaining to God (at least too often). They continued to sin but their physical and mental sins and weaknesses did not shape or define them, rather they rose above them.
Christians traditionally have honored a martyr on the date of his or her death. Before Rome allowed Christianity martyrs for the faith were, not surprisingly, copious. There obviously soon were too many to give each his own day, and so when the Pantheon was dedicated as a church on May 13, 610AD it was dedicated to “Mary and All Martyrs”. About two centuries later the date for All Saints was set by Pope Gregory IV to be: November 1st.
Now November 1st in the British Isles long had been the date of the Celtic harvest festival honoring Samhain (i.e. “the end of summer”). The Celts believed that ancient spirits of the dead returned to their earthly abodes on the evening before. They would come up from a hole in a mound called an “Oweynagat” (Cave of the Cat).
While not trying to attract unwanted spiritual attention, food and drink were left out to curry favor towards one’s household and crops. Over time some of the customs, such as carrying fires around, were carried over into Christian activities during these days. And, not surprisingly, these activities morphed further over the many centuries to follow, even after the Isles were totally Christianized.
The “leaving out” of food & drink over time became “souling”. In medieval Britain Catholics, and Protestants as well, would go from church to church begging little cakes in exchange for praying for the souls mentioned by the giver. In Scotland and Ireland children would go in disguise (e.g. “guising”) and ask for coins and food.
Trick-or-treating itself as we know it today was not widespread in the U.S. until the depths of the Great Depression. The phrase actually is short for: I threat to do mischief unless I get a treat!
Which leaves the jack-o-lantern. In Medieval Europe fires were lit to guide the souls away from bothering, or “haunting”, good Christian folk. Jack-o-lanterns were carried by folks who were in disguise to frighten away spirits. In Ireland anyway it was customary to use a large rutabaga.
In fact the name “Jack-o-Lantern” seems to be owed to a wonderful Irish tale. One night a drunken man named Jack on his way home ran into the devil but tricked Lucifer into climbing a tree. Then he treed the devil by carving a cross on the trunk until he promised not to take his soul when he died. After a life of debauchery the Pearly Gates were not opened to Jack. The devil, however, kept his promise but cast a coal from hell at Jack to drive him away. It being a cold night Jack put the coal into a carved rutabaga to give him light to search for a place to rest.
So Halloween or All Hallow’s Eve today remains an amalgam of pagan and Christian. This should not be surprising given that the Christian seed was planted into pagan harvest soil (and of course Christians harvest at this time of year too). Christian activities associated with Christmas also grew out of pagan rituals.
But, while Christians cringe at the zombies, ghosts, and ghoulies, we can and should look on the bright side (of a dark evening). Much on Halloween can be seen as displaying Christian theology, from the obvious manifestations that there IS in fact a spiritual realm to that, well, not everyone makes it to heaven.
Likewise, the darkness of the night and the little light coming from inside pumpkins hearkens back to the first page of Genesis (to name just one of many Biblical contrasts between light and darkness). Wishing anyone a “Happy Halloween” today reminds both that the date is tied to someone hallowed, as opposed to those who are not. And, it further reminds any thinker that hallowedness must be rare since nobody commemorates the ordinary [outside of the March Hare and Mad Hatter]. Skeletons necessarily remind all of the transitory nature of life, while skulls remind folks of where Jesus died, Golgotha (the place of the skull). So, a Happy and Blessed All Hallowstide to all.

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