The real Hallowe’en

As many have observed, Hallowe’en seems a tiresome prospect this year, because most people have been wearing scary masks for months. I for one shall certainly be glad if fewer American-style trick-or-treaters roam the streets; for as most British people lose the last vestiges of cultural Christianity, one feels that they are beginning to celebrate the dark the powers that their expensive Hallowe’en costumes depict, rather than warding them off, and trick-or-treating itself takes on a more menacing tone. But what is the alternative?

Here we need to look to the past. We Northern Europeans have long seen Hallowe’en as a night of spiritual significance. Gaelic pagans regarded Hallowe’en night as the end of the harvest season, and as the beginning of the festival day of Samhain, which for them was a liminal time—a time to be on one’s guard against ill forces. By the eighth century, under the Church, Hallowe’en had become the day before All Hallows’ Day, or, in modern English, All Saints’ Day; which began with first vespers on Hallowe’en night itself. According to the popular belief of the late Middle Ages, those dead Christians who were unready for heaven (the Church Penitent) became restless on this night. Many people imagined that they rose from graveyards to perform a consoling ‘danse macabre’, depictions of which were common in churches—a kind of Christian memento mori. In some places, poor children went ‘souling’: they knocked on doors to ask for specially-baked ‘soul cakes’, and in return they would pray for the bakers’ dead relatives. After the Reformation, many Protestants taught that the saved were ready for heaven immediately they died, but the custom of ‘souling’ survived in many Protestant places—though the souls of Purgatory were transformed into less definable spirits, perhaps malign.

But the Hallowe’en of Christendom was never a celebration of death and dark powers; it was never an acknowledgement of their mastery over us. For, as I have said, it was really the vigil of All Saints’ Day, the great celebration not only of saints but of God-given sainthood itself. On this day, Western Christians honoured—and still honour—the saints in heaven (the ChurchTriumphant), and thus praise and glorify God for his sanctifying work in them. So doing, we also declare our wish to be as open as them to God’s grace: to that shared divine life God offers to the faithful.
It is this ideal, I think, that can tell us how to celebrate Hallowe’en today: so to speak, we need once more to plant our pumpkins in Christian soil. At the Christian Hallowe’en, Christians acknowledge the darkness of sin within man, and its consequence, death; but we do so only to prepare for the great feast of the triumph of the Church, the great reminder that the darkness within us need not have the last word in our lives—and that therefore it need not have the last word within our societies either. In the struggles of mortal life in this ‘vale of tears’, the Church knows well by experience that the prayers of those in heaven (the Church Triumphant) help those of us alive today (the Church Militant). The whole Church is one great family of prayer.

Indeed, for that very reason, the Christian season of Allhallowstide, which begins on Hallowe’en, has one third and final day. On the second of November, the Church celebrates All Souls’ Day: the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed. Christian liturgy on this day resembles that of a funeral; the day is especially comforting for those in mourning, who can unite their pains of bereavement to those of the whole Church Militant, as everywhere she dons black vestments and commemorates the dead. No-one need feel alone in grief on this day.

Allhallowstide thus takes us from a reminder of darkness, to a glorious glimpse of our future hope and the ongoing triumph of the Church, and takes us back again to an honest acknowledgement of the pains of this mortal life; but an acknowledgement filled with the renewed hope of faith. It is through just such a season, developed by many generations of the faithful, that society can again find a rational, hopeful, faithful response to the increasingly satanic tenor of the de-christianized Hallowe’en. This Hallowe’en night, then, why not observe Allhallowstide, starting with the first vespers or evensong of All Saints?

POSTSCRIPT. There is one common Christian objection to Allhallowstide, which sadly keeps many from enjoying its benefits. For it has always been a human religious instinct to honour distinguished creatures as well as God: the classical cult of heroes shows us this, as does the recent cult of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But some Christian men (and it is almost always men) think that Christian practices that satisfy pre-theoretical human religious or aesthetic instincts distract Christians from a pure intellectual awareness of the Gospel, and are ‘pagan’ and ‘religious’ (a pejorative term for them). They therefore object to the veneration of saints, adding that it cheats God of the love and reverence due to him alone. However, this objection is easily answered. The instinct of veneration is no more peculiarly pagan than the instinct of prayer to God. The Faith is that to which all human religious instincts, all our mental striving, and our very nature points; the cross is written through all the substance of the world. Fittingly, therefore, the Faith reconciles, perfects and fulfils our religious instincts; it does not simply deny or suppress them. Indeed Christians’ love of the saints, like our love of our families, in no way conflicts with our love of God: love is not a zero-sum game.