Seeing Halloween and All Saints’ Anew

Sonnet 100
Lord Brooke, Fulke Greville

In night when colors all to black are cast,
Distinction lost, or gone down with the light;
The eye a watch to inward senses placed,
Not seeing, yet still having powers of sight,

Gives vain alarums to the inward sense,
Where fear stirred up with witty tyranny,
Confounds all powers, and thorough self-offense,
Doth forge and raise impossibility:

Such as in thick depriving darknesses,
Proper reflections of the error be,
And images of self-confusednesses,
Which hurt imaginations only see;

And from this nothing seen, tells news of devils,
Which but expressions be of inward evils.

This week, monsters and mayhem, devils and demons emerge from our inward imaginings to take on physical form, as Halloween captures our attentions. This celebration of the church is everywhere. From carved pumpkins to candy-covered apples to candy-filled children to cobwebs and spiders to Charlie Brown Specials, this holy season finds many secular expressions. This season is almost anachronistic, reminiscent of those ancient times when the natural and supernatural seemed interchangeable and life and death seemed familiar companions. In that world, Halloween was meant to be a reminder not so much of darkness and death but of light and (eternal) life. Halloween served this role because it accompanied All Saints’ Day.

All Saints’ Day, or All Hallows, is when the church commemorates all saints, known and unknown. The eve of All Saints’ is known as All Hallows Eve, or Halloween. Each year, All Saints’ Day falls on November 1. Much like the American holidays of Veterans Day and Presidents Day, on All Saints’ Day we remember many people. All Saints’ Day is a day set aside in the church year to remember all those “saints” of the church who have died, specifically naming those individuals we know and love who have died since our last All Saints’ Day celebrations.
Christians have been honoring their saints and martyrs since at least the second century C.E. The Martyrdom of Polycarp, probably written near the middle of the second century, attests to this practice. The ancient book reads:
Accordingly, we afterwards took up his bones, more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more pure than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, so that when being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps (18).
Initially the calendars of saints and martyrs varied from location to location and, often, local churches honored local saints. However, gradually celebration days became universal. The first reference to a general celebration for all the saints occurs in 373 C.E. Early on, John Chrysostom assigned a day for the dead to the first Sunday after Pentecost. The eastern churches still celebrate All Saints’ on that day. In the West, this date was probably originally used, and then the feast was moved to May 13. The current observance of November 1 probably originates from the time of Pope Gregory III and was likely first observed in Germany. Following the Reformation, in most western Christian traditions, the celebration of All Saints’ Day expanded to include commemorations of all who had died in a given year, mirroring the early church practice of attributing sainthood to all Christians in a community.
The vigil of the feast (i.e., the celebration or watch-service on the “eve” before a holiday) has become its own festival. Many customs of Halloween reflect the Christian belief that on the feast’s vigil the church mocks evil because for the church the night serves as a living confession that evil and death have no real, ultimate power over us.
As a result, various customs have developed related to Halloween. For instance, in the Middle Ages, poor people in the community begged for “soul cakes,” and upon receiving these doughnuts, they would agree to pray for departed souls. This is the root of our modern day “trick-or-treat.” Similarly, the custom of wearing masks and costumes developed to mock evil and to confuse the evil spirits. In addition, on All Hallows Eve, it was customary for Christians to visit cemeteries to commemorate departed relatives and friends with picnics and the last flowers of the year. Whether All Saints’ is celebrated in the spring or in the autumn or is intended for some or all of the departed, the celebrations of Halloween and All Saints’ reminds us that we live in a world more about light than darkness, more about hope than despair, more about life than death, more about resurrection than the grave. Without All Saints’ Day, the customs and costumes of Halloween lose their potency and significance. Without Halloween, All Saints’ becomes stilted and more solemnity than celebration.
Enjoy the celebrations both on Saturday and on Sunday, remembering these words from John’s gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1-5)
See you at chapel on both Wednesday, as we look toward Halloween, and on Sunday, as we celebrated All Saints’ Day as a community.

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