Keeping Christ in Halloween

Whenever churches make noise about the demonic origins of Hallowe’en, my response is to say we need to claim it as our own, take it back from those occult overtones, and mark it as a great time for our children.

Celtic cross Knock IrelandA few years back, the singer-songwriter Steve Bell posted a reflection on his website titled “Keeping Christ in Halloween.” I know that even just the title of Steve’s post startled some of his readers, particularly those accustomed to thinking of Halloween as having clearly occult overtones. Yet he was quite right in insisting that as Christians we lay some claim to All Hallow’s Eve, as it is very much connected to our Feast of All Saints’.

The earliest sign of an observance resembling All Saints’ is found in the 300s, when the Eastern church began to observe a day in remembrance of martyrs. For centuries the day was marked on the first Sunday after Pentecost, as is still the case in the Orthodox tradition. In the Western church context, sometime in the early 700s the feast migrated to November 1, and at the same time its focus was broadened from dealing primarily with martyrs to dealing with all who have gone before us in the faith of Christ. And here lies the story of Halloween.

Throughout the Celtic territories of what is now Great Britain and Ireland, those tribal peoples had long marked October 31 as the last day of their calendar year. It was on this day that their god of the dead—Samhain—was said to thin the line between the land of the living and the land of the dead, and to gather in the spirits of all who had died in the past year. This “thinning” between life and death was believed to allow hostile and malevolent spirits to cross over into the land of the living, making it a night of considerable fear.

In some places torches were lit around fields to create the illusion of daylight. In Scotland turnips were hollowed out, carved with frightening faces, and lit with candles in an attempt to scare off the spirits. In many places people dressed in costumes and went door to door to collect food to offer at the graves of the dead. And while some of these practices may sound familiar, they were deadly serious…

As the Christian movement spread through those lands, a wonderful opportunity for mission arose. “You fear the dead?” the Christians asked. “There’s no need for that; in fact we celebrate and revere our dead, our saints, our holy ones.”

As the Christian movement spread through those lands, a wonderful opportunity for mission arose. “You fear the dead?” the Christians asked. “There’s no need for that; in fact we celebrate and revere our dead, our saints, our holy ones.” And so, the night of fear called Samhain was claimed as the Eve of All Saints, or All Hallows’ Eve. Many of the rituals remained, though now they were given over to families and carried out in a spirit of celebration, with the food gathered often given to the poor.

Right through the Middle Ages it was common for children and poor people to go door-to-door on All Hallows’ Eve, collecting what were called “soul cakes;” small round cakes, made with allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and raisins or currants. Before baking, the cakes were marked with a cross, not unlike the hot cross buns of our own culture. But even this practice got a bit twisted back on itself, and so the belief developed that each cake eaten represented a soul being freed from Purgatory.  Still, whenever churches make noise about the demonic origins of Hallowe’en, my response is to say we need to claim it as our own, take it back from those occult overtones, and mark it as a great time for our children.

And here’s an idea to plant with parishes across the diocese. One year when I was accompanying one of my children on her Halloween rounds, I realized that the darkest building on our street was the church. It suddenly struck me that on this one night of the year when the street were teaming with children and parents, local churches had a great opportunity to make their presence known. I was the incumbent of St Stephen and St Bede at the time, and so the next year as Halloween approached I suggested we station people at the church to give candy to the kids and hot coffee to the chilly parents. The parish embraced the idea, someone carved a jack o’ lantern, and a couple of the volunteers even donned costumes for the event. A little leaflet was designed, with the very basic information on the parish, and just a few lines about how in doing this we really were “Keeping Christ in Halloween.”

Perhaps not as dramatic as those early Celtic Christians freeing the people from a fear of Samhain night, but maybe so simple a thing as being present and hospitable on the Eve of All Saints’ can be a part of building new connections in our neighborhoods.

By Jamie Howison