of halloween and hollow celebrations

Is Halloween evil? Is it a festival followers of Jesus can comfortably participate in? Or are we right to keep our distance?

me as Ophelia, Halloween 2008
I have never been a big follower of Halloween – in fact, I think I’ve been to one Halloween party in my life (I dressed up as Ophelia from Hamlet, more in line with the Christian All Saints remembering the dead rather than with the fear of death and evil spirits).

As a minister, I have been asked by parents, how do we respond to the growing enthusiasm for Halloween in our community, and how do we explain our reluctance to embrace this festival to our children?

I like the idea of All Saints Day, taking the time to remember the saints who have shown us glimpses of the Holy in our midst. I am wary of the pagan elements in the history of Halloween.

I do, however, appreciate the richness of Celtic Christianity, which draws on some of the spirituality of the ancient Celtic tribes of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Brittany. And many of the festivals in Christian tradition replace and absorb within them traditions of other cultures.

The thing that bothers me most about traditions is when we celebrate them without understanding them. It bothers me about the way people outside of Christian spirituality celebrate Christmas and Easter, turning them into commercialised opportunities for glutteny and greed with no thought of the person of Jesus who shows us the path into the heart of God.

So, having googled Halloween, here are some facts about the traditions of Halloween I have rediscovered.

The name: Hallow is a word for holy (think The Lord’s Prayer). E’en is a shortening of Evening. Halloween is shorthand for All Hallows Eve, the night before All Saints Day.
All Saints Day was moved from May to 1 November, to shift the attention of new Christian communities from pagan stories to Christian stories. People were encouraged to remember those who had died during the past year, and light candles for the saints. The communion of saints is a Christian idea that the community of followers of Christ is not bound by space or time, and those who have gone before sing in heaven with the angels. (there’s a line in the communion prayer of thanksgiving, ‘and so we join with the choirs of angels and the saints of every time and place …’)
This night is also, for ancient Celts, and Pagans today, Samhain (pronounced sow-in), when it is said that souls of the dead returned among the living. People would light bonfires and wear masks to keep the evil spirits at bay.
There’s a Roman festival of Pomona celebrated around this time, the goddess of the orchards inspiring such traditions as bogging for apples and drinking cider.

Trick or treating: the current custom of going door-to-door to collect treats actually started in Ireland hundreds of years ago. Groups of farmers would go door-to-door collecting food and materials for a village feast and bonfire. Those who gave were promised prosperity; those who did not received threats of bad luck. When an influx of Irish Catholic immigrants moved to the United States in the 1800s, the custom of trick-or-treating went with them.

Carving pumpkins: This custom apparently began with a turnip. People would hollow out the turnips and place lighted candles inside to scare off the evil spirits. When the Irish arrived in America, they discovered the pumpkin as a larger substitute for the turnip. And so, people now carve pumpkins instead of turnips for Halloween.

When you’re talking about Halloween with your children, perhaps a place to start is to remember where the traditions come from. Then you can celebrate the traditions you want to celebrate, and know why you leave some of the elements of the festival out of your celebrations.

If you decide to participate, or allow your kids to participate, in Halloween festivities, perhaps choose costumes that celebrate life and light (which are important in Christian spirituality) – some people have chosen biblical characters, there might be storybook characters that represent values you cherish …

You could make October 31 a really good family night – rent a good DVD, have a special meal and celebrate Jesus together.  Use some short Bible readings and Christian songs.  Perhaps you could share this with another family.

Think about what positive gifts you could give to any ‘trick or treat’ visitors, hang posters that speak of the goodness of creation, of light and life, in the windows.

Celebrate All Hallows’ Eve / All Saints Day by lighting candles for saints we wish to remember, people who have shown us the Holy presence of God among us.

In churches around the world, a tradition of Blue Christmases, or Services of Solace, has emerged in recent years (or perhaps re-emerged). This may be a version of All Saints Day, the German Day of the Dead, or other customs from around the world. It is important to remember those who have died recently, especially we find, in the lead up to Christmas, a time of family, friends, celebration, joy. Naming the sorrow that so often co-exists in our experience of life with joy, opens us up to move from despair towards hope, invites us into healing.

As I consider how to offer such spaces of solace and grieving after a year of much loss for my congregation, I am a bit sad that I have missed the opportunity to do this for our congregation this week, as an alternative to Halloween, a remembering of a Christian tradition. Or perhaps it is good to move it towards Christmas, closer to the end of the year, away from what is now, predominantly, a secular festival that has forgotten its roots.

Whatever traditions we celebrate, as we move towards the six months of the year that is filled with festivals, in my part of the world, at least, may we take the time to remember what it is we are celebrating, and leave behind the traditions that dishonour the story we claim to live. Because, as I see it, any celebration that lacks integrity is not much of a celebration. 


Adele said…
I think they still make turnip lanterns in Scotland. We certainly did when I was growing up there. And we didn't 'trick'. We had to earn our 'treat' by entertaining the neighbours we visited with a song, poem or joke. It seems to me it was a little more benign than the tradition here nowadays.
sarah said…
I like the idea of performing for your treat! It does seem a more positive community gathering approach :o)

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