Ghosts and goblins, mermaids and firemen, princesses and baby Yoda. It is Halloween. How many of us remember waiting until it was just dark enough so we could go trick or treating? As a kid wearing glasses it was always a challenge with the masks because if you wore both, then your glasses fogged up. If you left your glasses at home so you could be cool in your mask, then you couldn't see anything. But either way, there was candy to be had...candy we did not have to buy. One-year friends and I decided to be really creative and I ended up going as a fireplace. When the pictures came back my mom was disappointed because I was not in the pictures. But there was the fireplace in the back. And we did not have one in our house. Eventually she figured it out! Now we are in the middle of a pandemic. Who knows what tonight will bring?
There are some folks who go all out for Halloween. Others do not observe the holiday at all because it has sketchy beginnings. Originally October 31st was called All Hallows' Eve...the night before All Saints Day. And until the mid 1950’s it was a night for a liturgical vigil in the church. In the eight century the church appointed a special date for the feast of All Saints, or All Souls. It is believed an October date was chosen because of the time of year. The harvest was done. The summer was over, and the world was brown and drab and mindful of death. Snow had not yet fallen to cover the bare trees or dark fields. And it took little effort for people to look around and see a meditation on death and the life hereafter.
How you spent the Eve depended on where you lived In Christendom. In Brittany the night was solemn and without any trace of merriment. They believed on this night poor souls were liberated from purgatory and were free to visit their old homes. Others prayed by their beloved's graves during the day and attended church by night for more prayers. Some then went to the cemetery to pray for those not yet buried. They sang hymns and prayed some more for the dead. Before going to bed that night, the families would recite Psalm 129 together. During the night a townsman would go about the streets ringing a bell to warn people it was not wise to roam the streets because of the returning souls.
Begging at the door grew from an ancient English custom of knocking at doors to beg for a ’soul cake’. In return the beggars promised to pray for the dead of the household. Soul cakes were a form of shortbread, often having currants for eyes. But there was one zealous cook who vowed she would make a cake so tasty it would remind people of eternity with every bite. So, she cut a hole in the middle, dropped it in hot fat and the donut was born.
There were charades, pantomimes and mini dramas that were performed. They showed people the reality of life after death and the means to attain it. This is most likely where masquerading began. The message was always the folly of a life is selfishness, pantomimed by the damned. There was the torment of waiting...the message of the souls waiting in purgatory. And the delights of the beautific vision, the message of the heaven sent. Together they warned the living to heed the means of salvation before it was too late. Goblins and witches with cats...which were ancient symbols of the devil, were remnants of pagan times speaking to Christians of spirits loosed from hell to keep track of their own, and then herd them back to where they belonged at dawn.
These were times when death was a serious and acceptable meditation. Christian art shows skulls and bones as commonplace in interior decoration, particularly in the cells of convents and monasteries. Vigils were kept by graves and lights and bread were left for the dead. All of this for the purpose of recalling those who had died all while remembering that one day, we will be dead as well. People first began dressing up as souls of the dead, angels and saints for All Hallows' Eve. People believed impersonating the spirits in this way would offer protection from them.
Hallows are the name given to saints, and until the seventh century All Hallows' Eve was actually May 13th. It was Pope Boniface who moved All Hallows' Eve to October 31st to coincide with All Hallows' Day, or All Saints Day.
However, our celebration of Halloween is believed to also have pagan roots. October is a time of the year ancients believed the boundary between this world and the next became especially thin, allowing people to connect with the dead. This belief is shared by several cultures...a similar idea mentioned around the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, which also involves saying prayers for the dead. This is where Halloween gets its haunted connotations. Over time. Christianity took over the date and the pagan undertones of the holiday were lessened.
As with many things the holiday has evolved. Going door to door for candy descended from people giving treats to kids in the hopes they would be immune to any pranks and shenanigans. And while costumes began as a tribute to or protection from the dead, there was a point when young Scottish and Irish pranksters dressed up in scary looking garb to spook their unsuspecting neighbors.
They will be out tonight, dressed in costume. They will cry trick or treat! The little ones will be precious and the big ones...not so much. And we will give out candy. Halloween is no longer a night of vigil for loved ones who have joined the church triumphant. That happens on November 1...All Saints Day. We will talk about that tomorrow.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W