Honouring all saints, past and present, near and farWritten by Subby Szterszky
It’s no mystery. Halloween has become the most commercially popular holiday on the calendar next to Christmas. Throughout October, shops are swathed in orange and black, neighbourhoods dotted with fake boneyards and pumpkin patches and hot-air Frankenstein balloons. Well beyond their trick-or-treating years, adults continue to dress up in costumes and head out to parties.
Now as in the past, Christians from diverse backgrounds have a complex relationship with Halloween. Some are leery of it, citing its pagan connections and occult imagery. Others find it a harmless tradition and embrace it, much as the surrounding culture does. Still others adopt a position somewhere in the middle, or attempt to redeem the season by celebrating Reformation Day instead.
What many believers no longer recognize is that the holiday, which over time morphed into the modern Halloween, had its roots in the medieval church. Originally called All Hallows’ Eve (“hallows” being an archaic term for “saints”), it was the start of a three-day observance to honour fellow believers who had died, especially through martyrdom.
In older traditional branches of Christianity, the season is still called Allhallowtide or Allsaintstide. It begins with an evening vigil on October 31, followed by All Saints’ Day on November 1 and All Souls’ Day on November 2.
Established during the Early Middle Ages, the festival’s initial purpose was to commemorate those saints and martyrs who didn’t have their own feast day on the church calendar. Similar to Christmas and Easter, Allsaintstide may also have begun as an attempt to Christianize a pre-existing pagan holiday – although in all three cases, the nature and extent of those connections is far from conclusive.
But in any event, over time, the scope of Allsaintstide was expanded to include all faithful departed Christians, whether known or unknown, famous or not. This became especially significant in some Protestant traditions, which recognize all followers of Christ to be saints.
On All Hallows’ Eve, believers would fast and pray and attend a candlelight service in preparation for the coming feast of All Saints. On the two days afterwards, there would be memorial church services followed by festivities and entertainments, as well as visits to the graveyard to place flowers and candles on the graves of loved ones.
Given the holiday’s focus on those who had died – as well as the fact that it overlapped on the calendar with certain pagan harvest festivals – it was inevitable that superstitious folk practices from outside the church would become associated with Allhallowtide.
In some cultures, people believed that the spirit realm invaded the material world during this season, so they began to dress in costumes to disguise themselves from wandering spirits. They carved grotesque faces into turnips (later pumpkins) to frighten away these spirits. They would engage in eating and drinking games as a means of divining their own futures. Children and the poor would go house-to-house, begging for cakes or coins, promising fortune or misfortune (trick or treat) depending on how they were welcomed.
With the advent of secularism, however, these folk practices have lost much of their original spiritual trappings. They’ve become, for most people, little more than cultural traditions – albeit highly profitable ones for the marketing and retail sectors.
Sadly, the season has also lost its ties to the Christian observance that gave birth to it. The commemoration of All Saints and All Souls has become all but forgotten in the culture at large, and in many quarters of the church as well.
This is a great pity. Beyond the various liturgical traditions, the overarching theme of these feast days was to comfort believers by calling to mind their faithful loved ones who were with the Lord in glory. As autumn hastened toward winter, Christians would be reminded that this present life may indeed be fleeting, but it would inevitably give way to everlasting joy in the world to come.
Costumes and candies aside, both church and society have become poorer by neglecting these truths.
From our contemporary viewpoint, it may seem that past cultures were overly preoccupied with death. But this is small wonder, given that disease or famine or war usually made death an imminent reality for people in those earlier times.
By contrast in our modern Western world, improved living standards and a longer lifespan have made death seem far more distant, like a bridge to be crossed somewhere down the road. Consequently the idea of death has become romanticized in art and entertainment, made the subject of jokes, or in any serious sense, avoided at all cost.
But for those who trust in Jesus, death is neither a morbid obsession nor a fearful end of all things. For now, it is merely a gateway into the presence of God. Ultimately, it is the final enemy, already defeated at the Cross and ready to be destroyed at the end of time.
In any event, whether Christians choose to celebrate Halloween or not, it remains an appropriate season in which to honour all saints, past and present, near and far.
As we remember family and friends who have gone to be with Jesus, we’re comforted to know that we’ll see them again and rejoice together in the presence of our Lord.
As we consider fellow believers who are suffering and dying in other parts of the world, we’re inspired and challenged by their courageous faith.
As we recall our spiritual heroes from ages past, we’re edified by the legacy of their words and deeds, as ones who are dead and yet still speaking.
Most of all, as we ponder the saints who have gone before, it gives us a sense of connection, of rootedness, of our place in the eternal Church that Christ is building through the centuries, and which He will glorify at the end of the age.
© 2019 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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