As of Friday, October 23, 2015
Now that the stores are filled with colorful fall decorations and the children are planning their trick or treat outings, it seems a good time to think about Halloween.
“Hallow” in Old English, means “holy” or “sacred.” Therefore, Hallows’ Eve, or Halloween, simply means “the evening of holy persons” and refers to the evening before All Saints Day, which is on Nov. 1 on both Protestant and Catholic calendars.
In times past, Halloween initiated a three-day observance of Allhallowtide, that time in the liturgical year that was dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints, martyrs and all the faithful departed believers.
Within Allhallowtide, the traditional focus of All Hallows’ Eve revolved around the theme of using humor and ridicule to confront the power of death.
In the early years of the church, when Rome persecuted Christians, so many martyrs died for their faith, that the Church set aside special days to honor them.
For example, in 607 Emperor Phocas presented to the Pope the beautiful Roman Pantheon temple. The Pope quickly removed the statues of Jupiter and the pagan gods and consecrated the Pantheon to “all saints” who had died from Roman persecution in the first three hundred years after Christ. Their bones were brought from other graves and placed in the rededicated Pantheon church.
In the next century, All Saints Day was changed by Pope Gregory III to today’s date - Nov. l.
In the 10th century, Abbot Odela of the Cluny monastery added the next day - Nov. 2 - as “All Souls Day” to honor not just the martyrs, but all Christians who had died. People prayed for the dead, but many unchristian superstitions also were continued. Food was often offered to the dead - as it had been in pagan times.
It was also believed that on these two days, souls in purgatory would take the form of witches, toads or demons and haunt persons who had wronged them during their lifetime. There was much superstition associated with this time of changing seasons, including the belief in fairies and that the spirits of the dead wandered around looking for bodies to inhabit.
Since the living did not want to be possessed by spirits, they dressed up in costumes and paraded around the streets making loud noises to confuse and frighten the spirits away. This is where we get the idea that people should dress up as ghosts or goblins on Halloween.
As happens so often in church history, sacred Christian festivals can absorb so many pagan customs that they lose their significance as Christian holidays.
But let’s think of it positively. While there is nothing wrong with Halloween being a time for children to dress up and go around seeking handouts of candy, the day can be so much more.
It is a wonderful time to talk about your favorite heroes in Christian history. Can you think of anyone whose example has inspired you?
Why not use this All Saint’s Day to think of and give thanks for as many Christians from the past that you know about, whether they are famous or not, whose lives have contributed something to yours.
The secularization and commercialization that so often takes over holidays need not prevail. We can do something to recapture the original meaning of Halloween and give thanks for our saints.
‑ Rev. Pat Beeman is pastor of the Sunnyside United Methodist Church