One weakness some Christians have, myself included, is the tendency to become so focused on avoiding something potentially bad that we overcompensate and throw out too much of what’s good. Protestants in particular have a history of this. In our attempts to avoid what we’ve perceived to be “too Catholic,” we’ve no doubt stripped our worship experience and our theology of much that’s good over the years. And our faith traditions are all the poorer for it.
Take Halloween, for example.
Depending on whom you ask, Halloween probably falls somewhere between harmless secular celebration on one end of the spectrum and pagan or satanic holiday on the other. Most of us probably don’t even think of it as a Christian holiday. But that’s actually what it is.
The word Halloween (sometimes written Hallowe’en) is simply a contraction of All Hallows’ Evening. You may be familiar with the adjective hallowed, which means set apart or consecrated. The verb hallow means to make or set apart as holy. But hallow can also be a noun, and it means a holy person or a saint.
That’s where we get Halloween. Essentially it’s another term for All Saints’ Eve, and that makes it pretty significant, because on November 1, All Saints’ Day is observed by Roman Catholics and by many Protestants all over the world. It’s a day of celebrating the communion of saints, a community made up of all past, present and future Christians.
As with other feasts and holy days (e.g. Christmas and Easter), some Christians have traditionally celebrated All Saints’ Day with a vigil the evening before. That vigil became All Hallows’ Eve. This comes from the Jewish practice of beginning days at sunset, not midnight, a practice that carried over into early Christianity.
Halloween and All Saints’ Day are followed on November 2 by a third, lesser known day: All Souls Day. The combined three-day observance is called Allhallowtide.
What’s the difference between All Saints’ and All Souls’, you ask? These days, not much, because the two have been conflated over time and many churches don’t even observe All Souls’ Day anymore. But the original purposes of the two days are quite different.
All Saints’ Day can likely be traced back to the early seventh century, when Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon in Rome to the Virgin Mary and all the martyrs and ordered a yearly celebration to commemorate it. This happened on May 13, which coincided with the final day of Lemuralia, a festival in Ancient Rome during which the Romans attempted to exorcise ghosts of the dead from their homes.
In the eighth century, Pope Gregory moved the day to November 1 to mark the dedication of an oratory in St. Peter’s Basilica. Some argue that this was an attempt by Gregory to Christianize Samhain, a pagan festival of the dead observed by the ancient Celts.
Although the focus and purpose were quite different, the common theme of the dead was present in all three festivals. As time passed, no doubt the Christians influenced the pagans, and vice versa.
But All Saints’ Day isn’t just about those who’ve died.
Yes, All Saints’ is a day when we recognize Christians who have gone before us, but it’s also a day of asking how we should live as saints now and how we intend to pass on the faith to future generations of believers. That’s what the Communion of Saints is all about.
All Souls Day, on the other hand, is a day set aside exclusively for commemorating the faithfully departed, particularly one’s relatives and friends. While All Saints’ Day has traditionally been a celebration of more well-known believers, martyrs and heroes of the faith, All Souls’ Day is meant to be a more solemn occasion with an emphasis on lesser-known Christians, especially the ones we’ve known personally.
The day was established on November 2 after an 11th century French abbot, Odilo of Cluny, chose it as a day of general intercession for Christians who had died. He commanded all Cluniac monks to keep it, and by the end of the 13th century, All Souls' Day was observed throughout the Western church.
Many Protestants merged All Souls’ Day with All Saints’ Day at the time of the Reformation, and the Roman Catholic emphasis of purgatory on All Souls’ Day has no doubt played a role in the blurring of the line between the two days by non-Catholics. Nowadays, many American churches fuse All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day into one day and celebrate it on the Sunday following All Saints’ if November 1 doesn’t fall on a Sunday. Unfortunately, this has probably further separated Halloween from All Saints’ Day in the minds of many Christians.
Like Christmas and Easter, the modern secular holiday of Halloween has been shaped by a number of factors, including paganism, Christianity and commercialism. (And the greatest of these is commercialism!) Because of Halloween’s association with death and evil, some believers and churches have avoided observing All Hallows’ Eve entirely. Others have attempted to Christianize the celebration of Halloween, which I find somewhat puzzling — how do you Christianize something that’s technically already Christian?
Perhaps we should do something radical and return Halloween to its roots as an All Saints’ vigil. Many churches already hold harvest festivals and trunk or treat events on the evening of October 31. Why not plan those along with a simple All Hallows’ Eve worship service and mark it as the beginning of Allhallowtide, a three-day period of celebration and remembrance?
Allhallowtide is also an opportunity to have some meaningful spiritual experiences in a small group or as part of a family worship time. Try having a love feast on All Hallows’ Eve and an All Souls’ prayer vigil the evening before November 2. If you’re up for doing something unusual, have the prayer vigil in a church cemetery. (If you really want to live on the edge, try a public cemetery!)
Christians love talking about resurrection but we’re not usually comfortable dealing with the subject of death. It’s an enemy, after all, per 1 Corinthians 15:26: “Death is the last enemy to be brought to an end…” The CEB Study Bible note for this verse says, “Mortality, which is connected to human sin, is humankind’s final and unwavering enemy until the resurrection.”
Make no mistake, death is an enemy. But we need not fear it.
I suspect the saints who’ve gone before us would concur.
All Saints’ Vigil (All Hallows’ Eve)
A global celebration of All Saints' Day
All Hallows’ Eve liturgy (from the Episcopal Digital Network)
All Saints’ Day (Textweek)
The Great Thanksgiving for All Saints and memorial occasions
John Wesley on All Saints’ Day
Family litany for All Saints' Day
A prayer meditation for All Saints' Day
All Souls’ Day (1 and 2)
All Souls’ Day (Textweek)