The Spiritual Origins of Halloween
Several years ago my daughter Kristen asked me why we have Christmas carols but not Halloween carols. I remember giving some quick answer that it’s because Christmas is a spiritual holiday and Halloween isn’t.
I have come to question that perception.
It happened because a little girl, excited about Halloween, grew up to be a classically trained organist. And in the process of composing music that she feels has been missing in this autumnal celebration, she taught her dad a few things about Halloween’s history.
For example, trick or treating.
From her considerable research that has guided her melodies, Kristen says it originated in part as a religious exercise. Seems the medieval church told people their prayers for dead ancestors could spring those dearly departed souls out of purgatory. As the practice spread, entrepreneurship, in the form of enterprising children, raised its lovely head, and on All Hallows Day, kids went door-to-door offering to pray for villagers’ ancestors in return for a cake, which they appropriately enough dubbed a soul cake.
(As for whether there was a “trick” part of the offer, I doubt it: wax was precious and windows few.)
Pre-Christian pagans also believed that their dead moved to a post-mortal spirit life and on a certain day in the fall were allowed to visit the earth. Not wanting to be inhospitable to such visitors (for who knew whether they would be good or evil), those still rattling around in mortal tabernacles would provide nourishment for unseen guests by setting food near their front doors. They called the holiday Samhain, and pronounced it sow-in (rhymes with cow-in). Why, I do not know, but it indicates a definite belief in the hereafter.
Though commercialism came to dominate the holiday (always the case), we can see that the spirit of Elijah – concern for those who have passed on before us – flickered even then. People prayed for those they never knew. Now, it might be easy to explain why someone would want to pray grandma out of purgatory or leave bread on the porch for grandpa: they usually knew them. But what explains praying for a great-great-great-grandmother, someone they didn’t know at all? Simple superstition? Weren’t at least some hearts already being turned to their fathers before 1836?
Fascination with Death
A more important example of Halloween’s spiritual side is, counter-intuitively at first blush, its fascination with death.
As crops were harvested and nothing would grow again until spring, it was natural for people to reflect on their fragile existence as the days grew shorter and colder – thoughts that happened to coincide with the Halloween season.
Death was thought delivered by evil spirits and costumes at Halloween began with masks to ward them off. Later, death was symbolized through such henchmen as monsters, ghosts and witches (and in due time as vampires, zombies and werewolves), and people would demonstrate their power by dressing as these very symbols they feared, thus mocking death and proving to themselves and their neighbors that they were fearless in its face. A form of whistling past the graveyard . but kicked up a notch.
Less visible were the more serious types who coped with their eventual fate by wondering what life is all about. They had to have thought somberly about their status before their Maker as fall gave way to winter. And the threat of an early demise due to hunger – Fast Sunday writ large – could generate spiritual feelings.
As we who have the gospel can appreciate, contemplating death can be healthy if it reinforces a feeling that the test is drawing to a close and it prods us to action. Just as the little boy asked his father why grandma was always studying the scriptures, and received the answer that she was cramming for finals, why shouldn’t we want to estimate our remaining time and measure it against our to-do list? Thoughts of death can be useful if they help us separate the important from the trivial.
For still others, Halloween became a time of rejoicing, of celebrating the lives of ancestors and looking forward to a better life in the future. Mexico’s Day of the Dead, for example, carries a tone of Memorial Day where death is acknowledged but not feared. At celebratory feasts, an empty chair is left for a guest from the otherworld, a parallel to the Jewish tradition of leaving an empty chair for Elijah at Passover.
Though some see Halloween as dark and evil, I choose to see it as a happy holiday – a time to celebrate the harvest “safely gathered in” and think deeply about life. The death component may be a turn-off for some, but death is nothing if not a pre-requisite for that glorious future event: the resurrection.
In proper perspective, Halloween can symbolize our journey into the winter of tribulations and death, while Easter allows us to look death in the face because we have the springtime hope of the resurrection after our trials are over.
Halloween and Easter – naturally sequential spiritual holidays.
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