Thursday, November 1, 2007

All Saints

Now that we're all filled with Halloween chocolate and trying to figure out what to do with all the decorations and the rotting pumpkins, let's look at the real reason we even bother having Halloween. No, it's not to sell chocolate.

The reason we have Halloween as it now exists isn't even because of the pagan holiday co-opted by Christians. Well, okay, that does have a lot to do with why it looks the way it does and why it's on that particular day. But still, there was an All Hallows Eve of sorts from the earliest days of Christianity. Because Halloween, or All Hallows Eve, was a vigil held on the eve of a major feast day. The feast day is, of course, All Saints Day (or All Hallows).

The church, in a rather spotty and episodic fashion, started celebrating the saints who went before as early as the third century CE (what we used to call AD, but that's another column). The early Christians felt they should do a couple of things. 1) honor the lives of the many Christians who had died already (Remember that many of the earliest Christians thought the end of the world was fast approaching, so they had to get used to the idea of fellow Christians dying before the big day), especially the martyrs who preferred to die rather than give up sharing their faith. 2) reaffirm the Christian hope in the Communion of Saints and the life everlasting. That is, to remind ourselves that when we die, we are really going to a new and more wonderful life with God. It reaffirms the idea that those in heaven and those still on earth form a continuous family dedicated to glorifying God.

Folks used to celebrate All Saints at various times, depending on where they lived and when. But by the middle ages, it was firmly established at October 31 – and yes, it did co-opt a pagan feast day. Just like Easter and Christmas. And yes, the skeletons and ghosts and witches have the older European traditions to thank for their continued popularity. The 31st was supposed to be a day when the veil between the living and the dead was at its thinnest, so people dressed in ways to comfort and communicate with dead loved ones – and to keep evil spirits at bay.

Well, I'm celebrating the saints – but I'm still going to eat my kid's chocolate.