What's Hallowe'en really about?

When I was a lad, Halloween slipped by without anyone noticing it. Gradually, over the last 40 years, it has crept into the British calendar, encouraged by aggressive marketing from retailers eager to make money out of the fascination people have with anything scary.

Christian reactions

Hallowe’en means the eve of All Hallows Day, more commonly known as All Saints Day. This is a Christian festival but, paradoxically, most Christians, in a knee-jerk reaction, have identified Hallowe’en with the work of the Devil and react negatively to the fascination with fear and horror that it generates. Christian parents commonly oppose the celebration of hallowe’en in schools and many churches nowadays hold “light parties” on 31st October to give their children something more wholesome to invite their friends to.

The Christian calendar

The Christian Calendar teaches the Christian Faith through a series of celebrations. These start with Christmas, which celebrates the birth of Jesus by which God entered his own creation. Lent is a time to recall the life of Jesus on earth, ending with his death, celebrated on Good Friday. Good Friday is a happy-sad occasion. Jesus death appears to be a tragedy but in fact is a victory, since it made it possible for God to forgive sinners by Jesus bearing their punishment on their behalf and allowing his perfect life to be credited to those who put their trust in him. On the Sunday following Good Friday we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. 40 days later, Ascension Day celebrates his return to heaven and 10 days after that comes Pentecost, celebrating the day that God poured out the Holy Spirit on the church to equip it for its mission of bringing God’s rule to the earth.

The period from June October is a time to concentrate on the church’s mission. All Saints Day, at the beginning of November, looks forward to the completion of that mission in the lives of all God’s holy people who have lived the life of faith. Finally, in December, comes Advent, which looks forward to Jesus’ return to earth and the final judgement.

All Saints Day was thus intended to be a very powerful time, celebrating those who have defeated the Devil and gained salvation and rejoicing in our hope of doing the same.

Satan's last stand

The legend grew up that, because The devil hates what All Saints Day stands for and yet is powerless against the victory of the Saints, he throws a special tantrum on the day before, letting loose all the ghosts and demons and forces of evil he can muster in a last ditch attempt to thwart the triumph of Christ and the church. And that’s how Hallowe’en came about.

Samhain

There is an ancient Celtic festival called Samhain which is held at the same time as Hallowe’en and which some pagans observe today. Samhain was thought to be a time when the barriers between this world and the other world became thin and it was possible to get in touch with the spirits of the dead. The Christian church may have put All Saints Day where it is in the calendar to turn simple commemoration of the dead in general to a celebration of the saints who have gone ahead of us and to discourage people from trying to make contact with the dead, a practise which God forbids in the Bible.

Something to celebrate?

Maybe Christians shouldn’t be so po-faced about Hallowe’en. It’s a time to celebrate the ineffectiveness of Satan, his inability to overcome the power of God. It’s a time to mock him for the futility of his attacks on us and to praise God that there is nothing Satan can throw at us that can harm us, if our lives are given to God – “greater is he that is in us than he that is in the world.” But it is also a time to remember that he can gain power over us if we let him and that he can be “like a lion prowling round, seeking whom he may devour.”

And, if you’re not a Christian but you are organising a hallowe’en party for yourself or your children – why? What are you celebrating, really and is it worth the money?

Photograph © copyright Fr Lawrence Lew OP, accessed from Flickr.com under a Creative Commons Licence.

The photograph shows a depiction of the Last Judgement created in 1445 in the Catedral Vieja, Salamanca. On the left the saints, arrayed in white are gathered into heaven, while the sinners on the right are sent into Hell.