All Hallow's Eve… reclaimed

… a sense of wonder

I

think that everyone who attended our “All Hallow’s Eve” event (held on the 29th of October, a couple of days before the actual Eve of All Saints’) would agree that it was a really good evening.  The event was offered in collaboration with the home congregation of All Saints Church, and in part was designed to respond to those who would see Hallowe’en as some sort of occult or demonic event.

 

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From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!

(a traditional Scottish prayer)

Well, in fact the roots of how this society celebrates October 31 aren’t so clear as that, with the role of the ancient Celtic church being one of taking the fear out of the night and turning it into a time to play.  We kind of like that approach, and it is in that spirit that we offered this event.  As people entered the church, they were met by flickering carved pumpkins, dimmed lights, and atmospheric music being played on the pipe organ.  After a brief introductory liturgy, we all sat back to enjoy a  performance by  the world-class magician Brian Glow, whose approach was marked by both playfulness and a sense of wonder.  After the 45 minute display of magic tricks – which often left the appreciative congregation both baffled and delighted – we adjourned to the parish hall for food and drink.

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For all that, it is probably fair to ask whether or not it makes sense for a church to pay this much attention to something like Hallowe’en.  There are certainly pre-Christian roots to the day, and in current 21st Century practice it is all at risk of being “paganized” as a night that invites adults to dress up in all sorts of provocative costumes and indulge. All the more reason to remember where it all came from, and maybe to bring it all back home.

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In the northern hemisphere, October is the climax of the autumn season. For the ancient Celtic peoples of the British Isles, the month marked not only a time of harvest and celebration, but was also a time to be mindful of the cycles of life and death.  The Celts marked the last day of the month as the feast of Samhain, the god of the dead (though the name means simply “summer’s end”).  They believed that it was on this day that the veil which separated the living world from the dead was particularly thin, allowing the spirits of those who had died during the year to pass across.  They also believed that it meant that the spirits from the place of the dead could travel into the world of the living, and even take back with them some of the living.  It was, then, a night marked by real fear.

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Fires were built on hilltops, both as symbols of the light to counter the growing darkness of winter, and also as a foil to trick the spirits into thinking that it was still daylight.   In some areas, people would dress up to confuse the evil spirits and avoid their mischief and curses. People would go from house to house begging for apples and nuts, which would be offered at burial sites as offerings to the spirits.  In parts of Scotland, the inhabitants would carve frightening faces into turnips, place candles in them, and put them in the window to ward off any of the wandering spirits. While you can see the roots of our modern Halloween in all of this, in those ancient days this was all deadly serious business.

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When Christianity was introduced into those lands, rather than trying to combat all of these practices the missionaries helped the people to reimagine the relationship of life and death.  “Death has no dominion,” and the dead in Christ are not to be feared but rather remembered with thanksgiving.  In time, November 1st was designated as “All Saints Day,” a festival commemorating all of the “saints” of God, known and unknown. The night before became known as All Hallows Eve (All Saints Eve), and while many of the old practices continued, they were freed of the old fear and became playful and celebratory.

It was in this spirit that our celebrations were offered.  I think that if you look at the pictures included in this post, you’ll see that we did indeed manage to trump fear with playfulness and celebration.

 

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