|Liturgy by TLW|
A Christian Name with
Blended Christian & Folk Traditions
by The Rev. Thomas L. Weitzel
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
I am disturbed by a recent trend by well-intentioned Christian people to prevent their children from participating in the annual fun of Oct. 31, even to the point of not allowing the use of the name Halloween, because of supposed connections with satanism and/or other destructive activities. As a student of history and a Christian pastor, I cannot in good conscience stand by and allow the Christian connections in this holiday to go without notice, nor am I prone to give up something that has a degree of integrity and purpose (and a lot of fun) just because someone happens to be more destructive in mindset than I am.
The name Halloween is old English and is a reference to the evening before All Hallow's Day, better known today as All Saints, which occurs on Nov. 1. The feast of All Saints, celebrated in Christian calendars of Lutherans, Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians and many others, is a celebration of the numerous faithful men and women of history who have died, including those recently passed away, who serve as examples to us of Christian living. The feast was established on this date by Pope Gregory III in the 8th century, and soon was observed universally by the whole Church.
From the beginning, this Christian feast of remembrance included a vigil, meaning that services and activities of preparation for the feast began on the night before. In England, this feast became known as Hallowmas, referring to the mass of All Hallow's Day (cf. Christmas, Candlemas), and the vigil on the night before was called Hallowe'en, short for Hallow's Even.
Before this Christian observance began, there had already been a custom in the British Isles associated with these same days. The ancient Druids, a priestly class of Celts, practiced a religion in which Nov. 1 was the beginning of the new year and a festival of the sun god. Because the sun's light was growing shorter during this season, they lit bonfires to honor of him on the night before. It was further believed that as the old year "died," the lord of death gathered all the souls of the dead on this night and decided what form they should take for the next year. The punishment of the wicked, condemned to become animals, could be lightened by the living if gifts and prayers to the god were offered on this night. At the same time, anticipation of the new year meant that Oct. 31st was observed with due fun and excitement.
When the Romans conquered Britain, some of these customs of the Druids were combined with Roman practice, which observed Nov. 1 as Samhain, or summer's end. On the eve of Samhain, evil spirits were thought to be unleashed to create havoc and mischief on earth. In order to keep these evil spirits away, the Roman Celts would put on frightening costumes made of animal skins, therefore insuring a happy observance on Nov. 1. In addition, the Roman festival of Pomona, the goddess of fruit and nuts, was also observed in Britain at this time of year when the harvest was complete and storehouses were ready for winter.
When Christianity spread throughout the empire of Rome, it condemned the old gods and goddesses, but often assimilated local customs into the faith. Given the Christian association of All Saints with the departed, it was not unnatural that many of the old Druid and Roman customs would continue in slightly altered form throughout Britain. Fires were lit on Halloween in honor of the Christian departed. Prayers and gifts were offered in the churches and for the repose of the souls of the recent dead. Graves were visited, and the dead were generally on the minds of all as preparations were made for All Saints. While sounding moribund, Christian-influenced Halloween actually remained a time of fun and gaiety.
As the early Christian era led into the middle ages, superstitions about witches, fairies, ghosts and spirits abounded. On the British Isles, these found ever greater association with Halloween, likely because of the ancient Druid and Roman associations. One tradition tells the story of St. Patrick, bishop of Ireland, being put to sleep by a fairy on Halloween. Another tells of a stingy man named Jack who was barred from heaven for his sins and even from hell because of his practical jokes on the devil, so that he was condemned to walk the earth with a lantern until Judgment Day -- that lantern being called a Jack O'Lantern. Even as superstitions were widespread, still the mischief and frolic traditionally associated with Halloween was more often the mischief of boys and the frolic of young people rather than any evil spirits.
In 17th century Ireland, peasants began going from house to house on Halloween asking for money for their All Saints feast. Here earlier notions of gifts and offerings combined with the Christian notion of sharing with the poor.
The ancient Halloween fires of the British Isles traveled across the English Channel to become vigil candles or oil lamps for Spanish Christians, lit in seclusion or in churches, and joined with prayers for the dead. Eventually such prayers were carried to the cemeteries themselves, where hundreds of candles would be lighted around the graves of the dead on Halloween. Still later, the custom was carried by Spanish Christians to Mexico where even today family members light hundreds of candles around the graves of their loved ones and remain all night. Special foods are prepared and set upon the graves for the visitation of the spirits of the deceased who are thought to return on Halloween. The atmosphere is one of both honor and gaiety.
Halloween traditions in America have been influenced by all that has gone before, as immigrants from Britain, Europe, and Mexico have brought their religious and folk customs with them. Halloween as a night of spirits, mischief and frolic continue to this day. The ancient practice of costuming to ward off evil spirits has combined with the 17th century house visits by Irish peasants to give us the now-familiar visits of costumed children seeking candy, a very recent 20th century development in the tradition. Lighted pumpkins survive from the old bonfires burning in honor of the dead. Parties with games for adults and children continue to add fun to the season. Cider and bobbing for apples remind us of the season's ancient link with the Roman fruit goddess Pomona.
Signs of Halloween's traditional association with the Christian feast of All Saints and remembrance of the faithful departed remain in the images of death that abound: black crepe, skeletons, caskets, ghosts, cemeteries, tombstones, even crosses. People in New Orleans traditionally wash their graves (which are above ground because of the marsh) at this time of year. Hispanic and Native American Children in New Mexico chant as they go from house to house: "Oremos, oremos, angelitos semos, del cielo venemos. Si no nos dan puertas y ventanas quebraremos: Let's pray, let's pray, We are little angels, From heaven we come. If you don't give to us, Your doors and windows We will break." At each house they make the sign of the cross, and food is given them, which is taken to the cemetery and placed around the foot of the cross.
While both Christianity and folk custom have blended to give us the Halloween we know today, it is also apparent that the entire tradition helps us socially and psychologically to confront death and things which perhaps frighten us. I remember seeing a PBS documentary on the Mexican Days of the Dead some years ago, which explained how these days attempt to make a "friend" of death and the dead by removing the fright. And so the parties, and the candy skulls and skeletons, and the costumes and parades. And even the prayers.
So it is with all the Halloween traditions, I believe. While Christian scripture speaks of death as being the last enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26), it also speaks of not being afraid of it because we are baptized into Christ (Romans 6:3-4). Nor should we fear evil or the devil (Psalm 23:4). Or witches or black cats or anything else (Psalm 118:6).
That is why I believe that Christians should not have a problem with Halloween, but should enjoy the fun. Halloween has an honorable Christian association with the remembrances of All Saints. If we teach our children appropriate traditions about this holiday as we teach Christian love and respect for neighbor and property, then those who would corrupt and abuse Halloween will not prevail.
1. Urlin, Ethel L. Festivals, Holy Days, and Saint's Days: A Study in Origins and Survivals in Church Ceremonies and Secular Customs. (Detroit: Gale Research, 1974) pp.190-97.
2. Douglas, George William. American Book of Days. (New York: H.W. Wilson Co., 1948) pp.565-71.
3. New York Folklore Quarterly, XXIX (1973), 164, 176, Collected by Catherine Harris Ainsworth.
4. Wayne State University Folklore Archive, 1961, Collected by Marvy Evelyn Hill.
5. Journal of American Folklore, XXX (1917), 495-96 and XXXI (1918), 550-52.
6. The Oxford Dicitionary of the Christian Church, 2nd ed. by F.L. Cross and E.A. Livingstone. (Oxford U. Press, 1983), pp.36-37.
7. Adam, Adolf. The Liturgical Year, trans. M.J. O'Connell. (New York: Pueblo, 1981) pp.228-30.