“As a friend of mine observed recently, there is something medieval about Halloween…”
A very interesting “take” on Halloween, and the larger Hallowmas season (Eve of All Hallows, All Hallows / All Saints Day, and All Souls Day) of which it is a part. Sally Thomas writes, in this “web exclusive” for the excellent journal First Things,
“As a friend of mine observed recently, there is something medieval about Halloween. The masks, the running around in the dark, the flicker of candles in pumpkins, the smell of leaves and cold air — all of it feels ancient, even primal, somehow. Despite the now-inevitable preponderance of media-inspired costumes, Halloween seems, in execution, far closer to a Last Judgment scene above a medieval church door, or to a mystery play, than it does to Wal-Mart.
“To step outside on Halloween dressed as someone—or some thing—other than yourself is to step into a narrative that acknowledges that the membrane between our workaday, material world and the unseen realm of spirits is far thinner and more permeable than many of us like to think. This narrative disturbs a lot of people, as the proliferation of church-sponsored ‘autumn festivals’ and ‘trunk-or-treat’ parties suggests. To some of those who worry about it, Halloween is either a thoroughly secular or a thoroughly pagan observance, to be avoided by serious Christians…
“Halloween’s emphasis on darkness makes many Christians squeamish, but, to my mind, what my friend observed about the medieval feel of Halloween is more on the money. There is a drama to be played out, like a mystery play in three scenes, and it makes sense only if you observe all three days of Hallowmas — not only Halloween but All Saints’ and All Souls’ days as well. In this context, the very secularity and even the roots-level paganism of Halloween become crucial elements in a larger Christian story.”
“What their costumes are is less important than the fact that, for a night, my children will be people other than themselves: each of them will be someone who, regardless of real-life fears about the dark, is not afraid to step out into the night. Armored inside their personae, they can laugh at the shadows, as well they should. On the one hand, the powers of darkness are no joke; on the other hand, although Christians have no traffic with these powers, we do not fear them.”
This is an important lesson to learn, and one of the reasons I get a bit impatient at those Christians – usually on the Evangelical / Fundamentalist Protestant side of the Christian spectrum – who get into conniptions over Halloween, and often refuse to celebrate it at all. They are missing the point. They are also surrendering to the demonic far too much power: as Ms Thomas points out, we have no traffic with these powers, but neither need we fear them: Christ has already won the victory over them.
[These are some of the same folks – doubtless good and well-meaning people – who act as if, even if they may not formally believe, that the Devil is God’s “opposite number,” so to speak. In fact, the counterpart to Satan (Lucifer, the fallen “angel of light,” who became the demon of darkness) is St. Michael the Archangel (see Revelation 12:7–10): God is utterly supreme, omnipotent and ineffable, and has no opponent! That the Devil thinks he is anything close to equivalent with God is but a conceit on his part (hubris: overweening pride), and a heretical error to any human who believes it.]
Halloween is (or should be; admittedly, there are some who use it to celebrate darkness to a psychologically and spiritually unhealthy degree, but Christians should know better) about mocking the forces of darkness, not embracing them. It is, in a sense, a victory parade for the battle that was won for us on the Cross of Calvary – a celebration in which some may choose to wear the uniforms of the defeated enemy.
And it is also, of course, a harvest festival, celebrating the turning-point between the season of warmth and light, and that of cold and dark… between, that is to say, the seasons of life and of death, or seeming death. And this, too, is a Christian mystery!
For just as the myths of the “dying gods” recorded by Frasier in The Golden Bough, and others, were reflections of the seeming “death” (actually dormancy) of the natural world in the Winter, only to be “reborn” in the Spring, so that very seasonal cycle is a reminder of what C.S. Lewis called the “true myth” of Christ’s death and resurrection:
“Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself . . . I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant.’
“Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference — that it really happened.”
Thanks be to God! Just don’t forget that All Saints and All Souls are yet to come – the drama is not yet complete:
“On All Saints’ Day, our parish holds a children’s festival, hugely attended, at which children and adults alike dress as their favorite saints… The party is such fun that we could almost dispense with Halloween, whose festivities, as we observe them, are minimal by comparison. But the cumulative iconography of being, first, a secular character confronting darkness, and then a saint in light, is imaginatively powerful and valuable.
“As our Hallowmas ends, the pageantry and excitement of Halloween and All Saints’ Day give way to the comparative quiet of the feast of All Souls. This final solemnity is a day without costumes. Having been denizens of the night and citizens of the household of God, the children step back into themselves to contemplate their own mortality and pray for our beloved dead. In three days they have enacted the story of their own eternal lives: from darkness to the hope of heaven and the joy of the saints who await them in glory. From mystery to mystery, it’s a drama I would not have them miss.”
Amen, and amen!