It isn't - and never was - a holy evening

Posted: October 31, 2011

By Daniel Deagler

A few years back, a letter to the editor of a suburban Philadelphia newspaper lamented the deterioration of Halloween: "On the eve of the Christian feast honoring the saints on November 1st, children would dress in the attire of a favorite saint and celebrate that person's heroism. That custom has disintegrated to something far less worthy, to say the least."

I laughed when I read that, as I had heard the same creative origin story years before from the Sisters of St. Joseph, my teachers at St. Athanasius. I no longer remember if I believed it as a first grader, and in retrospect I can't blame the sisters for giving it a try. But dressing up as your favorite saint is definitely not how Halloween began.

Long before the Gospels reached the Celtic lands of my forebears, a festival called Samhain (pronounced SOW-in) was observed at the cross-quarter day, or halfway point, between the autumnal equinox and winter solstice. Samhain celebrated the harvest and the passing into the dark half of the year. The ancient Celts divided the year between dark and light halves, with Nov. 1 beginning the dark half and thus the de facto Celtic new year. It was observed with bonfires, feasting, and games - along with a certain amount of trepidation, as Samhain was a festival not just of the harvest, but also of the dead.

It was believed that the veil between the living and the dead was at its most transparent at Samhain; spirits of the departed and inhabitants of the "fairy realm" walked abroad in the world and interacted with the living. At Samhain, one was never sure whether a stranger encountered on the road was a person or something else. It was thus in one's self-interest to show hospitality to anyone knocking on the door after nightfall.

Unlike iconoclasts ranging from the Puritans to the Taliban, the Catholic Church often sought to succeed rather than obliterate indigenous customs by overlaying them with Christian ones. The Celtic cross, for example, combines the Christian cross with the pagan symbol of the sun. Old gods and goddesses were recast as saints. The cross-quarter day festival Imbolc, on Feb. 2, became Candlemas (and, in America, Groundhog Day).

In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III established Nov. 1 as the Feast of All Saints, or All Hallows ("all holy"). The Feast of All Souls, Nov. 2, was added in the 14th century. These two days, along with Oct. 31, called All Hallows' Eve or Hallowe'en (a contraction of "Hallow Evening"), made up what was called the Hallowtide, which combined harvest celebrations with prayers for souls in purgatory. Because both Samhain and Hallowtide were about veneration of the dead, the former lived on comfortably within the latter. During the Hallowtide, children went door to door begging for little treats made of oatmeal and molasses called "soul cakes."

The Irish and British carried on the customs of Samhain/Halloween that eventually crossed the Atlantic with them. It was in the New World that Halloween revelers found something without which our modern celebration would be unthinkable: the pumpkin. (The original jack-o'-lanterns were hollowed-out turnips.)

Today, despite its name, Halloween is no "holy evening." But it's no devil's dance party, either. Our mysterious travelers of the night are children, and they are as likely to be attired as princesses and ninja turtles as they are to be ghosts and goblins. And if Oct. 31 is not about venerating the saints, there are plenty of other days for that - Nov. 1, for example.

We should remember that many things make up our cultural heritage. Our alphabet is Roman, our numbers Arabic. Four of the seven days of the week are named after Norse gods. Pagan customs surround us every day - especially on holidays, whose roots go deeper than we might think. Anyone who disagrees can tell me what exactly the Christmas tree or Easter egg has to do with Jesus of Nazareth.

Daniel Deagler lives in Bucks County.

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