Friday, October 29, 2010


Growing up, I loved Halloween. To be honest, I really disliked having to decide who I was going to be for Halloween and what kind of costume I would wear, but once those hurdles were past I loved the holiday itself – the party at school, followed by trick-or-treating around the neighborhood. In those days (The Bronx in the 1950s), kids weren’t afraid to be out, and adults weren’t afraid to open their doors. Most adults gave us candy (which no one was afraid to eat in those days), but some gave money – as much as 25 cents or, in the case of one generous neighbor, the unimaginably large sum of 50 cents! Back then, Halloween was basically a children’s holiday, which adults also enjoyed.

All that has changed, of course. In many places, children’s trick-or-treating has lost its traditional spontaneity and become a choreographed event, supervised by adults and hedged in by fear. Adults, on the other hand, have turned Halloween into a holiday for themselves. (It’s been suggested that my generation of “baby boomers” enjoyed our childhood holiday so much we just don’t want to let go of it). Halloween is now the second most decorated-for holiday in the United States (second only to Christmas). Like Christmas, it is now a full season that begins in stores months beforehand.

Less emphasized, in either the children’s Halloween of the post-war years or the adult extravaganza of today, have been its original significance and its subsequently added layer of Christian religious meaning. November 1 was once the most important of the four seasonal turning points of the ancient Celtic year, the beginning not only of winter but of a new year, the eve of which was imagined as a frightening in-between time when the spirits of the dead might roam about and possibly even try to haunt their old homes. Bonfires and jack-o-lanterns (originally carved out of turnips) were part of the defense of the living against an assault from the other world.

By about the 9th-century A.D., the Roman festival of All Saints was moved from May to November 1 - a kind of Christianization of the old Celtic holiday, and a celebration of the triumph of Christianity over paganism and of Christ’s victory (as exemplified in the saints) over the demonic forces which had hitherto held people in fear. (Hence the name “Halloween,” which means “the eve of All Hallows” - i.e., All Saints).

All Saints Day celebrates the Church Triumphant – all the saints, both known and unknown – who now praise God for ever in heaven. Around the end of the first millennium, as a sort of sequel to All Saints Day, the Church added All Souls Day on November 2, a day devoted to urgent prayer on behalf of all who, having died, are now still being purified of the consequences of their sins.

In the Church’s calendar, both the month of November and the season of Advent, which immediately follows it, have traditionally focused on our end, as an inevitability which we humanly fear, but for which we wait with the hope made possible for us by Christ. How we think and speak about Christian hope regarding the end and the eternal fulfillment of God’s purpose for creation is fundamental for a coherent Christian faith.

At least in the northern hemisphere, thoughts about the end come quite naturally at this time of the year, as the sun rises a little later every morning and sets a little earlier every afternoon. Amidst withered leaves and barren branches, there is a melancholy sense of time passing by as yet another year draws to a close. Science confirms that the universe, as we know it, did not always exist and will not always exist. However distant the day, it is doomed to end. Less distant, there is the individual - but no less definite - death of each one of us. The human condition of alienation from God through sin makes mortality seem the ultimate frustration. Perhaps, that may help to explain modern secular society’s increasing inclination to downplay death, even to the point of failing to provide complete religious funerals for the deceased. In contrast, Christian hope causes one both to treat all of life as a preparation for a good death and not to neglect the duty of prayer for those who have gone before us.

The great autumn triduum of Halloween, All Saints, and All Souls challenges us to face our fears and contemplate the mystery of death – but to do so in faith and hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep (1 Thessalonians 4:14).

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