Hallowing Halloween

August 27th, 2012
This article is featured in the Outreach 2013 (Nov/Dec/Jan 2012-13) issue of Circuit Rider
Image ©Northcountryboy | Flickr | Creative Commons

The calendar page turns from September to October. Pumpkins and witches pop up on lawns. Ghosts and skeletons dangle from trees throughout the community. Giant spider webs appear in nooks and crannies. Bright orange and black messages drape the landscape. "Boo!" shouts Halloween.

The popular celebration enjoys immense media and cultural support. Huge marketing strategies proclaim the holiday. Halloween is second only to Christmas in the revenue it generates! Halloween candy, Halloween cards, Halloween costumes, Halloween parties, and Halloween decorations abound in near Mardi Gras spirit. Halloween costumes and parties for adults frequently outnumber those for children. It's all around us!

Murmurs begin in your classroom. "Can we have a Halloween party?" The question confronts the sacred of the church with this "sinister" celebration. You want to encourage free spirited fun; but images of death, fear, and the ghoulish parade through your mind. Ghosts and goblins in church? As a Sunday school teacher, are you ready to say no to Halloween? No wonder church school teachers like yourself long for a way to redirect Halloween's focus.

Reclaiming Halloween

Did you know that originally Halloween was a celebration of the church year? It is. As a children's Sunday school teacher, you can define this holiday with God's light; you are positioned to reclaim Halloween's darkness. You can grant the children's wish for a party, encourage their fun and celebration, and teach them a valuable lesson of faith. All this begins with the simple desire to hallow Halloween.

History and Traditions

Many traditions have influenced the present day Halloween. And yes, some practices do have roots in early pagan festivals. In pre-Christian England and Ireland, the Celts celebrated a festival of summer's end, which also marked the eve of the Celtic New Year, November 1. In Celtic religion, transitions such as the passage of one year into the next, were considered times when the veil between life and death thinned. On the eve of the New Year, spirits of the dead might roam the land. These ghostly wanderers could torment the living, wreaking havoc on crops, houses, or buildings. The Celts set out food to appease the spirits; they roasted nuts over a fire for good luck in the new year.

Likewise, the person to retrieve an apple from a large tub of water with his or her teeth would be the next one to marry. Most of the Halloween customs we know, costumes, jack-o-lanterns, tricks or treats, came to the U.S. from these Celtic descendants: often via English and Irish immigrants to America.

As superstition increased in the Middle Ages, witchcraft flourished. October 31 was understood as a more potent day for spells, incantations, and predictions than ordinary days. Hence, the more ominous symbols of Halloween, black cats, witches, bats, and skulls, swirled into the seasonal mix. No wonder Christians began to withdraw from this holiday.

Declaring Life and Light

As Christianity spread to Europe during the first centuries, Christian themes invaded the pagan culture. All the while, God's church was honoring its martyrs through holy days of worship and prayer. As early as the fourth century, evidence for a service celebrating all saints, not just martyrs, exists. By the seventh century the feast of All Saints was secured as a regularly celebrated day of the Christian year.

As the fall landscape lay withered and barren, and as the days darkened, death's images loomed. As a way to proclaim God's grace and celebrate life over death, the Church set November 1 as All Saints' Day. In confronting pagan interpretations of reality, the Church proclaimed a joyous celebration of life now and of the life to come. Death, then, is not a veil separating the living from goblins and dark spirits, but is the passageway through which we travel to become whole in the presence of God! The faithful who die are not consigned to desolate eternal wandering. They live abundantly with God, released from incompleteness, suffering, and want.

All Saints' Day carries powerful affirmations of our faith. Believers then and now participate in something holy beyond the framework of their own lives. We learn we are a congregation not only in space but also in time.

Origins of ''Hallow's Eve''

Where does Halloween fit into all of this? Traditionally feast days, such as All Saints, called for a day of preparation of heart and mind, in order to properly observe and celebrate the feast. Prayerful preparation preceded the holy day. An earlier title for All Saints' Day was All Hallow's Day (to hallow is to consider something holy, sacred; to honor). The day before, then, is All Hallow's Eve, which became Hallows E'en and finally Halloween.

Emphasizing the ''Hallow''

Contemporary society celebrates a Halloween void of any real meaning; fun but empty. The church, however, possesses a Halloween full of meaning. It can be a hallowed evening again. Here are suggestions for hallowing Halloween.

  • Gather festively on October 31. Celebrate the joy that comes from believing in God. Encourage costumes accordingly: heroes and heroines; noble people; saints. Emphasize the phrasing, "All Hallow's Eve" as opposed to "Halloween" on flyers, posters, or invitations. Have a greeter and a doorkeeper. The greeter may give each participant a "key" to the celebration. The doorkeeper will allow only those with this key to enter. For example, the greeter would distribute slips of paper with a phrase from the Apostle's Creed on it "I believe ... in the communion of saints and the life everlasting." Children, youth, and adults must recite this to the doorkeeper to gain entrance to the party! Life is affirmed at the door!
  • Maintain or renew traditions. Bob for apples, make candy or caramel apples, pop popcorn, serve fruits and nuts-all reminders of the harvest time. Have an apple peeling contest. The longest unbroken peel promises a good long life. (Give 'Life' Cereal as the prize!)
  • Give "soul cakes." Make shortbread cakes in a gingerbread man shape. In early England, soul cakes were distributed to All Hallow's Eve beggars who came knocking. You can give your soul cake raisin eyes, nose, and so on. You may want to use soul cakes to remember the names of family members who have died and are now with God.
  • Make doughnuts. One legend tells of a cook who wanted to make a soul cake that made the beggars think of eternity with every bite. She made a cake, punched a hole in the middle of it to create a circle-the symbol of eternity-and the doughnut became part of All Hallow's Eve.
  • Play games. Alter a version of an old favorite, "Pin the Tail on the Donkey." Create a child-size "saint" with white robes; attach it to the wall. Add a gold crown and play "Pin the crown on the Saint!"

All Hallow's Eve is your opportunity to focus on the powerful theme of life in the presence of God, both now and forever. Then Halloween again becomes a hallowed time of joyful community on earth now, and a reminder of the promise of life in heaven. Its time to put the "Hallow" back in All Hallow's Eve.

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