The Drama of Hallowmas | Sally Thomas | First Things

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“As a friend of mine observed recently, there is something medieval about Halloween…”

Source: The Drama of Hallowmas | Sally Thomas | First Things

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.”

She adds,

“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.

Pyramid of captured German helmets, New York, 1918 (2)
Pyramid of pickelhauben (captured WW I German helmets), Grand Central Terminal, New York, 1919. While I do not necessarily applaud this sort of display, it does speak to the point of emphasizing the defeat of one’s enemy by displaying his “stuff.”

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!

Halloween: An Orthodox Christian Perspective

Source: Halloween: An Orthodox Christian Perspective | DAIMONOLOGIA

Good morning, all, and wishing everyone who celebrates a joyful Eve of All Saints (All Hallows Eve), Hallowe’en, or Samhain! Yes, I said Samhain. Let us be clear, shall we, that while there are indeed some Pagan – or at least folkloric – roots to Halloween, it is not Satanic in origin. Although the Evil One and his minions can infect, warp, and twist this as they can many other things, let’s not hand him a victory by conceding the field uncontested, shall we? And Pagan does NOT equal Satanic, unless you want to claim that all of our pre-Christian ancestors were so: a notion I vigorously deny, decry, and protest!

Leaving nutcases like Anton LeVey and his followers out of it, there are two basic roots of Halloween, as we have it today: the pre-Christian Celtic, and the Christian. The latter is clear and historical; the former is more suggestive, based on linguistics, mythology, and folklore.

With respect to the Celtic root, Samhain is the Irish Gaelic name for this holiday, apparently derived from “samh” = summer and “fuin” = end. In Gaul (ancient Celtic France, before the invasion of the Germanic Franks, and the conversion to Christianity), it was Samonios, or Trinuxtion Samonii, “the Three Nights of Summer’s End.” This comes from the Coligny Calendar, IIRC, and because the Celts tended to start things on their eves (days were reckoned as beginning at sunset of the day before), it is generally believed that Samhain (Samonios) was the “Celtic New Year.”

The word “Samhain” is used today in modern Irish to refer to the month of November: it is NOT the name of the “Celtic God of the Dead,” that is Annwn (and he was not evil either). As a holiday (holy day), it marked the boundary between the season of warmth and light, and that of cold and dark, and corresponded to Beltane (May Day), its opposite on what some have called “the Wheel of the Year.” It was a liminal time, being neither (quite) Summer, nor (yet) Winter.

The ancient Celts were fond of these “boundary” times and places, which are neither one thing nor the other – dawn and dusk, for instance, which are neither day nor night, or the sea-shore, which is neither land nor ocean – and appear to have considered them to be “thin spots,” where the “veil between the worlds” (our ordinary physical-sensory world, and the “Otherworld” of spirit and the sacred) was permeable. Thus, at both Samhain and Beltane, spirits – both the spirits of the dead, and spiritual beings such as fairies – were thought to be able to cross between the Otherworld and this one.

Some were benevolent, some baneful, and some neutral: that Samhain had a darker cast to it than Beltane is understandable given that, Beltane is the beginning of the season of warmth, light, and growth (“Summertime, when the livin’ is easy,” to borrow a line from the American musical “Porgy and Bess”), whereas Samhain is the beginning of the season of cold, dark, and decay, a time of danger and potential death in an agricultural society. But again, while such considerations are unpleasant and frightening to humans, they are not evil, unless one considers the natural cycle of birth, life, death, decay, and rebirth (new life springing forth from, and nourished by, the detritus of the preceding year) to be evil.

Still, no one likes to die, or have one’s loved ones die, and in pre-modern cultures, Winter was a time when death – by disease, starvation, exposure to the elements, etc. – was an all-too-likely outcome. So many of the customs and traditions which developed around Samhain were, in origin, human efforts to come to terms with this aspect of existence. Many of our Halloween traditions today remain, from a psychological perspective, ways to deal with – even to defy and laugh in the face of – those things which most frighten us.

And then of course there is the second stream, the second major taproot, of Halloween, and the one which gives it its name: the Christian Feast of All Saints, or in England, All Hallows. This is described in more detail in the attached essay (which tends to deny or minimalize the Celtic root), so I will not go into as much detail, but basically: this is the feast (actually a triduum of feasts) celebrating all the saints (the “holy ones” of God), known and unknown, and including both those notable figures of extraordinary sanctity which we typically think of as “saints,” and also those whose holiness is known but to God – ordinary Christians, living out our lives to the best of our ability, as God gives us grace.

This began in Rome in the 8th century of the Christian era, and whether by chance or design, mirrored the three days of Samonios: the Eve of All Saints (All Hallows Eve) on October 31st, the Feast of All Saints (All Hallows) on November 1st, and the Feast of All Souls, on November 2nd, for the rest of us. 🙂 What is lacking is a clear-cut connection that would indicate a specific intention to “Christianize” Samhain; but in the all-encompassing design of Divine Providence, I do not think the parallelism is coincidental!

So these are the two “roots” of Halloween: the pre-Christian Celtic, and the Christian. What is notably lacking in this history is any reference to evil. That was, as the linked essay makes clear, largely a modern invention. True, the holiday has always had a close connection with death; but with the death which leads to rebirth: either in the naturally-inspired, “wheel-of-the-year” sense of the ancient Celtic feast, or in the rebirth to life eternal of the Christian faith (the dates of the deaths of saints are often referred to as their “heavenly birthdays”).

Of course, one may do as one wishes with this day – celebrate or avoid. But let us at least be fair and accurate to the history, and to the spiritual significance of this date. After all, for those of us who are Christians, our God is among other things the God of Truth. We do Him no honour by making up fables, or by lending the Evil One more influence than he actually possesses!