For this week’s article, I researched the background of Halloween and All Saints Day. After spending about an hour online, I found myself enjoying the research more than anything else because reading about these two holidays was like following Alice into that mysterious rabbit hole. I didn’t know where I would end up.
It did not take long, however, before I discovered one simple truth about October 31: Halloween is a time in which various religious traditions clash and form a cultural quagmire of superstition and the sacred. Allow me to explain.
Halloween is an ancient pagan holiday rooted in Druid and Celtic sects of Ireland. It includes all of the superstitious beliefs for which Halloween is known, in particular the visitation by ghosts, spirits, the (un)dead, and the like on humanity’s earthly realm. In the words of at least one online documentary, it was a time in which the season of life met the season of death, when the boundary between this world and the next became so thin, souls were able to venture to and fro.
The holiday also included celebrations for the summer harvest. Since the days turned darker around autumn, the Celts celebrated the time of reaping the produce of the ground, storing foodstuffs in time for winter, and enacting religious rites to prepare for the upcoming months. Halloween was a way of protecting these ancient tribesmen from that which haunted them in their darkest hour, namely famine or freezing or both. They lit bonfires (now we light jack-o-lanterns) to ward off the dark and adorned costumes in order to fool evil spirits. Creepy stuff for sure.
When the Catholic Church stumbled upon all things Halloween in the fourth century, the Church found many of those Celtic practices unacceptable for obvious reasons. Pope Boniface IV stripped the holiday of all its pagan practices (the Catholic Church did the same for Saturnalia, which became Christmas, and Eoaster, or Easter) and replaced it with All Saint’s or All-Hallow’s (all holy) Eve.
To this day, Christians celebrate All Saint’s Day on November 1.
That’s a long story made short, but there’s more. Protestant Reformers in Germany came along and preferred neither Halloween nor All Saints Day. Instead, they made October 31 Reformation Day.
Since many people in the United States are not willing to worship on October 31 because of all the Halloween hype, many churches simply dedicate the Sunday before Halloween as Reformation Sunday and the Sunday after as All Saints.
If you’re courageous, you can use this week as an excuse to worship twice. Take our brothers and sisters at Epiphany Lutheran Church helmed by a new pastor, the Reverend David Armstrong-Reiner, for example: They celebrated Reformation Sunday last Sunday (no good Lutheran would miss it!), and they will celebrate All Saints tomorrow evening around 7 PM (call the church to confirm the time). Now that’s a worship-filled congregation right there!
Suffice it to say, the last week of October is one in which many faith traditions intersect. You may be a Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or a Protestant, but we all hold something in common today: it is a time to remember the heroes and heroines of our faith.
You may choose to remember the pillars of the Church—Martin Luther, St. Patrick, or Mother Teresa to name a few. Or you can choose to remember someone more personal: Grandma and Grandpa whose faith sparked your own belief in Jesus, or you may champion your old youth pastor who might have been a catalyst for your salvation.
There is nothing inherently wrong with remembering and celebrating the lives of our saints. Even God is big on remembering the ancients; in the Old Testament He declared repeatedly that He is “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”
You may call today what you will—Halloween, All Saint’s Eve, Reformation Day, or just another good, ole’ Friday night—but at least be sure to thank God for giving us saints whom we can remember, admire, and cherish in our hearts.
A version of this article was originally published on Baptist Spirituality in October of 2009.