Early European cultures—including the Celts and the Germans—observed holidays on the solstices and equinoxes, and also on the mid-point dates between those events. Those four “cross-quarter days” remain on our calendars as Groundhog Day and May Day, but the most popular of those celebrations is what the Celts called Samhain and what we now call Halloween.
This festival comes at a troubling time of year. The weather is growing colder; days are shorter and nights are longer. In the United States, on even-numbered years, voters choose their leaders right after Halloween. Also, for no particular reason, clocks are adjusted by an hour in much of the country, making midday closer to noon but also advancing sunset by a wrenching hour. (Having more light in the morning is a small gain from the adjustment, but scarcely sufficient reason to toy with everyone’s personal schedules.)
Christian missionaries adopted some festive customs from the pre-Christian population of Europe, turning Yuletide into Christmas and blending springtime fertility celebrations with the observance of the Lord’s resurrection. As for Samhain, Christians invented a second resurrection observance that they call All Saints’ Day. Instead of fearing ghosts and goblins, Christians celebrate their conviction that those they love who have died are not haunting them here on earth but instead are with the Lord in Paradise awaiting their resurrection on the Day of his appearing. When they observe All Saints’ Day, Christian remember Biblical saints, saints from later Church history, and saints they have known: grandparents, parents, friends, and the like. All Saints’ Day is also called All Hallows Day, making the night before the holiday All Hallows Eve, or Halloween.
At one time, Halloween was a children’s celebration. They had parties at school or at their homes, wearing costumes, bobbing for apples, eating sweets, and generally having a good time. They wore their costumes and visited their neighbors, threatening tricks and demanding treats. They were entertained by scary stories, comfortable with the knowledge that they were hearing these stories in a safe environment and that the fear and dread of these stories was only make-believe.
Then there was a generation that didn’t grow up. They were not content to let their children enjoy Halloween in childish ways; they clung to the fear and dread of the season and enhanced it for adult minds and hearts. From macabre decorations in their homes to horror movies to carefully staged haunted houses, this generation has turned Halloween into an entire season that rivals the Christmas season in buying and spending.
Many adults love Halloween. Some wish that Halloween would last the entire year. They wear costumes to work; they even dress their dogs and cats in Halloween costumes. The “hallowed” part of Halloween is largely forgotten. Ghosts, goblins, witches, monsters, and politicians are on everyone’s minds. The thrill of being frightened means more these days than Christian promises about the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Some well-meaning Christians attempt to tone Halloween down to a “Harvest Festival.” Others remember the great Halloween prank devised five hundred years ago by a monk in Saxony who posted some controversial sentences about forgiveness on a church door. However you choose to celebrate this cross-quarter day, I hope and pray that your celebrations are safe and enjoyable. J.