A Deeper Look at Halloween
All my life I’ve loved Halloween. I have fond childhood memories of my favorite costumes: the gypsy, draped in soft flowing scarves, wearing earrings long before I was old enough in “real” life; the pirate, with a black patch over one eye, front teeth and chin blackened with charcoal; the Japanese princess, wearing chrysanthemums my mother cut from the backyard and pinned to each side of my head. In my adult life I’ve continued to enjoy Halloween. The pirate remains a favorite costume, but I’ve also added the clown, a Spanish flamenco dancer one year, and more recently, a mime dressed all in black and white except for a red cap.
Even as a child I had a vague sense that there was something deep and mysterious about Halloween. As I grew older, I became progressively haunted by that sense of “something more.” In recent years I’ve come to understand consciously and theologically what I subconsciously intuited as a child.
The depth of meaning revolves around the jack-o’-lantern. Whenever I see one, my heart rejoices. Psychologist Carl Jung teaches us to pay careful attention to signs, symbols, and myths that trigger powerful emotions. So I’ve continued to explore why the jack-o’-lantern makes my heart soar. Surely there’s more to it than my love of crisp autumn air, the color orange, and Halloween costumes.
The origins of Halloween date back to the Druidic Celts who lived all over Europe between 1000 and 100 B.C. until conquered by Julius Caesar and absorbed by Rome. The Celtic New Year’s Eve Festival was called Samhain (literally “summer’s end” and pronounced “Sah-ween”) and began at sunset on October 3l, continuing through the night until dawn on November l, first day of the Celtic New Year. With the autumn harvest came the dying of the year as well as the dying of the land, the coming of the dark season, and the cold of winter, under the rule of Samhain, Lord of the Dead.
Before the Festival of Samhain (also the Celtic name for the winter season), the people stored their summer crops and secured their livestock for the winter, moving cattle, sheep, and horses to closer pastures. They slaughtered surplus cattle for the feast and burned the bones in “bone fires.” The “bonfires” were also kindled in honor of the departed Sun God. Julius Caesar describes more terrifying aspects of the Samhain celebration when the Druids burned wicker cages of men, women, and animals, along with bread, wine, and honey, seeking the gods’ favor by sacrificing their most valuable gifts. Horses were sacrificed, too, until the seventh century when Pope Gregory the Great issued a decree against it, suggesting that the people kill oxen instead for food “to the praise of God, and give thanks to the Giver of all gifts for His bounty.”
Celtic Day of the Dead
At Samhain, more than any other time of the year, the Celts believed that the ghosts of the dead mingled with the living. On this night, the souls of those who had died the year before traveled to the underworld. The bright bonfires served a dual purpose and expressed both the Celtic people’s fear and awe of the dead. On the one hand, the fires honored the dead and aided them on their journey. Room was made around the fire for the wandering souls to warm themselves, and food and drink were laid out for them as well. In their compassion, the living Celts sought to comfort the departed spirits in their pain.
But the Celts also feared the dead. The God Samhain transformed those who had died in sin into animals, and this night he summoned them for judgment. He would decide if they were to remain in animal form for another year or be allowed to enter paradise. On trial and angered by their animal state, the souls of the dead hovered in the air, capable of great mischief and wicked tricks. So the Celts dressed as animals themselves and danced through the night, hoping to lead the ghosts into paradise at dawn. And they kept their bonfires burning to protect themselves from the dead.
All Saints and All Souls
In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III moved the feast of All Saints’ Day, “All Hallows” or “All the Holy”, from May l3 to November l. October 31, All Hallows’ Evening, became All Hallows’ E’en, and finally Halloween.
In the ninth century, November 2 became All Souls’ Day, the Christian Day of the Dead, when the living pray for the souls of the departed. In Medieval England, people went “a soulin’” and prayed for the souls of the dead in exchange for a piece of “soul cake.” For years I enjoyed this song at Christmas instead of Halloween and never understood its significance:
Soul! Soul! Soul cake;
Please, good mistress, a soul cake,
Apple, pear, plum, or a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry;
One for Peter, two for Paul,
Three for Him that made us all.
The ending lines, which I only recently learned, hint at the contemporary custom of “tricking” if not given a “treat”: “Up with your kettle and down with your pan; Give me a good big one, and I’ll be gone.”
Halloween in America
According to the research of Michael Judge, the Protestant Reformation almost extinguished the observance of Halloween: “Reformist churches banned Halloween celebrations as satanic rituals and claimed that the Catholic Church, in allowing them to continue for so long, revealed itself as a heathen institution.” Halloween became widespread in America only after the mid-l9th century arrival of Irish Catholics. These survivors of the great potato famine of l848 were a welcome antidote to the Puritans of Colonial America who equated Halloween with superstition and black magic.
The American Irish, descendents of the ancient Celts, kept the traditional observances of Halloween and gave us the jack-o’-lantern. In Ireland these Samhain lanterns were carved out of potatoes or turnips and commemorated “Jack,” an Irish rogue so villainous that neither heaven nor hell wanted him, and he was doomed to wander endlessly, looking for a place to rest. It is unclear to me whether “Jack” was the potato or the potato lit his way, welcoming him as the early Celts welcomed lost souls around their bonfires. Some say that the face carved into the vegetable was the face of a loved one who had died in need of prayer. It is definitely clear, however, that the native American pumpkin makes a bigger and far more glorious jack-o’-lantern than a potato or a turnip!
The celebration of Halloween is seriously threatened today by conservative and fundamentalist Christianity. We’re told to avoid commemorating this day because it’s pagan and not Christian; because it’s childish and therefore foolish; because it’s satanic and evil. As Michael Judge laments: “It’s ironic that Halloween, which managed to make it as a genuine pagan remnant through so many centuries in a devoutly Catholic Europe, should be threatened in a society with a constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.” We need to “save” Halloween by embracing the deeper Christian truths it embodies.
Childish or Childlike?
In my fat file folder on Halloween I keep my favorite quote from Nikos Kazantzakis. It’s done in exquisite calligraphy by our friend, Michelle Reineck, of Kalamazoo, Michigan, who also loves Halloween and dresses up like a witch to both the dread and delight of the trick-or-treaters who come to her door. Michelle topped the quote with a bright orange pumpkin sticker and did the lettering in both orange and black, the traditional Halloween colors. Orange is the color of the autumn harvest, black the color of death. The passage from Kazantzakis reflects the spirit of Halloween as reflected in the Christian Scriptures: “Everyone needs a little bit of madness. Otherwise we’ll never be able to cut the rope and be free.” St. Paul echoes the “virtue” of madness when he tells us to become “fools for Christ.” In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes:
“Here we are, fools for the sake of Christ…Make no mistake about it: if any one of you thinks of himself as wise, in the ordinary sense of the word, then he must learn to be a fool before he can be wise. Why? Because the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God….For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor. 4:10, 18-19; 1 Cor. 1:25).
In the paradoxical strength of weakness and the wisdom of foolishness, Jesus called a little child to him and set the child in front of his disciples. “Unless you change and become like little children,” he said, “you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. And so, the one who makes himself as little as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 18:1-4). Jesus also exclaimed: “I bless you, Father, Lord of heaven and of earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to mere children” (Mt. 1l:25). When we celebrate Halloween, then, we are not childish but childlike in the Gospel sense; foolish perhaps in the eyes of the world, but wise in God’s eye; not puritanical but supremely Catholic, which also means a bit pagan and Druidic as well.
Overcoming Evil and Fear
Some people are afraid to celebrate Halloween because they believe it’s satanic. A concerned friend sent me the following passage from a contemporary witch: “Not only is Halloween one of our grandest feasts, it is also our biggest laugh on Christians. While we celebrate a Black Mass, sacrifice live animals and drink their blood, and give homage to Satan our glorious king, Christians all over the world are helping us by having Halloween parties and dressing up as devils, goblins and witches. With them unknowingly supporting our cause for evil, his power is multiplied.”
To me this seems like empty boasting. Yes, the devil is real. The power of evil is real, lurking both “out there” and inside each of us. We must be aware of real satanic cults who abuse animals or children for ritual purposes, especially on October 31.
Does this mean that Christians should cringe in fear and not celebrate Halloween? I think it means we should celebrate the day even more as the Christians’ “biggest laugh” on Satan and his cults! When we celebrate Halloween, we do not support Satan’s “cause for evil.” We celebrate the power of the Risen Christ who overcame the devil and the power of evil, the power of fear and death.
Our faith assures us of this. Psalm 91 insists that we “not fear the terror of the night…not the pestilence that roams in darkness…No evil shall befall you…For to his angels he has given command about you, that they guard you in all your ways.” And we pray in the much loved 23rd Psalm: “Even though I walk in the valley of darkness I fear no evil; for you are at my side.” “Be not afraid,” we sing at Mass in one of my favorite hymns. “Be not afraid, I go before you, come, follow me.”
Throughout his Good News, Jesus reminds us again and again that we need not fear, but nowhere more eloquently than in his Last Supper discourse: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God still, and trust in me….Do not be afraid…. The prince of this world is on his way. He has no power over me…. I have told you all this so that you may find peace in me. In the world you will have trouble, but be brave: I have conquered the world” (John 14:1, 27, 30; 16:33).
St. Teresa once said that she was more afraid of people who were afraid of the devil than she was of the devil himself! Me, too. I’m more concerned about people who are afraid of Halloween because of satanic influences that I am of those influences.
When we dress like a red devil on Halloween, we do not empower Satan but mock him as a silly little imp who cringes and whimpers in the presence of Jesus like the Gadarene demoniacs: “What do you want with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torture us…?” (Mt. 9:29). When we dress like ghosts or skeletons, we mock death because we believe that Christ has conquered and reversed death by rising from the tomb, as we, too, shall be raised from the dead. We laugh with St. Paul: “Death is swallowed up in victory. Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting?” (1Cor. 15:55).
The Laughter of Christ
In his tiny book, The Humor of Christ, Quaker writer Elton Trueblood inspires us with the proper Christian attitude towards Halloween, though he did not have Halloween specifically in mind:
“Any alleged Christianity which fails to express itself in [joy], at some point, is clearly spurious. The Christian is [joyful], not because he is blind to injustice and suffering, but because he is convinced that these, in the light of the divine sovereignty, are never ultimate….Though he can be sad, and often is perplexed, he is never really worried. The well-known humor of the Christian is not a way of denying the tears, but rather a way of affirming something which is deeper than tears.
Far from laughter being incompatible with anguish, it is often the natural expression of deep pain….’Terror’, says Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘is closely connected with the ludicrous; the latter is the common mode by which the mind tries to emancipate itself from terror. The laugh is rendered by nature itself the language of extremes, even as tears are.’ It is not possible to have genuine humor or true wit without an extremely sound mind, which is always a mind capable of high seriousness and a sense of the tragic….Kierkegaard echoed this conclusion when he said that the comic and the tragic touch each other at the absolute point of infinity.”
This spirit of Christian comedy, laughter, and joy makes me celebrate Halloween as an Easter in the autumn! Christ is risen from the dead. As St. John Chrysostom said in his Easter Sermon: “Now hell is a joke, finished, done with.” As we hear in the Easter Exsultet: “Christ has conquered! Glory fills you! Darkness vanishes forever! Rejoice, O Mother Church! Exult in glory! The risen Savior shines upon you!”
According to St. Augustine, “We are an Easter people, and our song is alleluia!” (Note all the exclamation points here.) Tom Renaud describes the same triumph in one of his Easter songs:
“Love is risen from the tomb of pain
Love is risen from the cross of shame
Love is risen from the dragon’s den
Love can never die again.”
I’ve finally come to understand why I love jack-o’-lanterns so much, especially the smiling ones. Jack represents the risen Christ! Jack is Jesus! I’m haunted by Halloween because it’s Easter! More lines from Tom’s music express this mystery:
Now the laughter of the risen Lord,
Comes like the flash of a sword….
Now the singing of a single man,
Can smash the stranglehold of death’s dark hand….
In the light of morning, his laughter cracked the sky;
It echoes through the ages, and his reign will never die.
The jack-o’-lantern proclaims the Resurrection. The jack-o’-lantern glows with light in the darkness because Jesus is the “Morning Star who came back from the dead,” the Light of the world, “the lamp of endless day.” The jack-o’-lantern may well be that villainous Irish rogue or other lost souls wandering in the dark, but Jack-Jesus brings them into the light of his fiery sacred heart where they find rest, as we say in our most popular prayer for the dead: “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon them.”
This is the depth we celebrate on Halloween when we dress up in costumes and party or go trick-or-treating, when we light roaring bonfires, when we carve pumpkins, make jack-o’-lanterns and fill them with the light of Christ. So a jack-o’-lantern candle sits on my desk all year round, not only because I love Halloween, but because it has profoundly Christic significance.
A Recipe for Soul Cakes on HalloweenFrom Bettelinn Krizek Brown, Seattle, WA
1 cake (or 1 T) yeast
1/4 cup lukewarm water
1/2 cup sugar (brown sugar or honey)
1/2 cup butter
2 cups scalded milk
6 cups flour (1/2 whole wheat)
2 t salt
2 t cinnamon
evaporated milk to brush on top
Dissolve yeast in water with 1 tablespoon sugar. Cover and allow to rise until light. Cream butter and remaining sugar. Add scalded milk. When mixture is lukewarm, add yeast and sifted dry ingredients. Knead into a soft dough. Let rise until double in bulk. Shape into small round buns. Brush tops with evaporated milk. Bake on greased cookie sheet in a hot oven (400 degrees) for 15 minutes. Turn down to 350 degrees and bake till golden brown.