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All Hallows Eve

30 October 2010



There’s a common misunderstanding about the celebration of Halloween that exists in some circles. Halloween is the observation of the eve of All Saints. If you look in the lectionary in the Book of Common Prayer, you’ll notice that there are propers appointed for Morning and Evening Prayer on the different feast days that occur during the Church Year. And you might also notice that on the evening before many of the feasts, the lessons read for Evening Prayer relate to the following day’s feast. So, for example, if you look on November 1st, you’ll find the readings for Morning and Evening Prayer for All Saints Day. And just above this, you’ll find the readings for the night of October 31st, which are described as the Eve of All Saints. This holds true not only for the Daily Office, but also for Holy Eucharist. Many of the feasts are celebrated by a service, not only on the day of the feast itself, but also on the evening prior, in which case the it is called a “vigil”.

The reason the major feasts overflow, as it were, onto the previous evening is that, liturgy-wise, a day begins at sundown the day before. This is taken from Jewish practice. The evening and the morning make up a day. If you’ve ever read the creation story in the book of Genesis that might sound familiar.

In our Christian context, the greatest and most noticeable of all liturgical “eves” comes on the evening of Holy Saturday. When the Great Vigil of Easter is celebrated, the First Eucharist of Easter takes place, not on Sunday morning, but on Saturday night. It is the same with All Saints Day, which used to be commonly called “All Hallows”. “Hallows” is an archaic term for “Saint” – to “hallow” something is to make it holy, and the Saints are those who have been made holy by God. And the vigil service of All Hallows took place the night before, on All Hallows Eve, which was commonly shortened to Hallow E’en. The word “Halloween” then, is no more than a contraction of “All Hallows Eve”.

That this simple fact seems to be utterly unknown to many people, and their ill-informed fears can sometimes be the source of some amusement. Evangelical churches, for example, are often at pains to replace what they see as a solely pagan celebration with something more “Christian“, and you can sometimes see such things as church signs enticing you to ignore celebrating Halloween, and instead come to their “Holy-ween celebration”. but of course they’ve simply replaced one word for “Holy” with another word that has precisely the same meaning. The change, which they though to be significant, was merely redundant, and it makes them appear very silly.

So what about the notion that Halloween is really a pagan celebration? Well, quite obviously, as I’ve just been at pains to demonstrate, Halloween, being the Eve of All Saints day, is already Christian celebration. Without the Feast of All Hallows or All Saints on November 1st, there would be no All Hallows Eve or Halloween on October 31st.

Up until the ninth Century, the feast of All Saints was celebrated in the month of May, but was moved in 837 A.D. by Pope Gregory IV to the date of November 1st. The new date coincided exactly with previous Celtic autumnal celebrations. It seemed only natural to the peoples of northern Europe that the end of the year would come at the close of the harvest-season, and after the autumnal equinox, so the Celtic New Year came on or near what is now the beginning of November. This is, more or less, the halfway point between the autumnal equinox at the end of September, when day and night are of equal lengths in the northern hemisphere, and the winter solstice at the end of December, when darkness lasts its longest and daylight is at its least. This natural wisdom was taken up by the Church, which begins the liturgical year with the season of Advent at just about this same moment, when darkness begins to be dominant in the natural world, for this is a natural analogy to the darkness and shadow of death in which the world found itself as it watched and waited for the coming of the Savior.

And it was also natural that, at the end of the year, as the leaves fell and much of the green and growing world seemed to die or sleep, men should turn their thoughts to the friends and loved ones who had died during the preceding year. In many Celtic cultures, the days surrounding the beginning of November were thought to be days in which the veil, as it were, between the living and the dead, between the visible and invisible worlds, was at its most transparent and permeable. It was believed by our pagan ancestors that the dead could move about the land of the living during this season of growing darkness, and a good deal of mystery was attached to the darkening of the world as autumn drew on past its glorious prime and took on more of the shadings of winter.

Whether the deliberate adoption and exploitation of these natural and cultural themes was the motive behind the transference of the feast of All Saints to November 1st, we can not be certain, but it makes some sense I think you might agree. Grace, it is often said, does not destroy nature, but perfects it; and the same can certainly be said of the overlay of Christian feasts on top of, as it were, older pagan festivals with similar themes. If pagan man, searching for truths amongst the raw data of creation, tentatively reached conclusions that seemed to foreshadow Christian truth, this can certainly be attributed to the work of the Holy Spirit preparing the pagan world for the fullness of truth to come in the Church. The author and apologist C.S. Lewis called these foreshadowing’s “pagan good dreams” and argued that, since all truth comes from God, the truths arrived at by pre-Christian men of good will were inspired by God; men so inspired would be more prepared to recognize in Christianity the hallmarks of familiar truth. St. Paul made a quite similar point to the philosophers of Athens in the seventeenth chapter of Acts.

So in the feast of All Saints, the Church ties together the incomplete threads of pagan reasoning concerning the dying of things and concerning the souls of the departed and gives us the fuller picture, the clarified reality at which the pagan world guessed and toward which it grasped. For All Saints teaches us that the veil between the living and the dead is, in the Church, very thin indeed. And while we do not believe that the dead come back to wander the earth, we do believe that the dead in Christ continue to have an active role to play. Membership in the Church is not like membership in any other human organization; membership in the Church comes from the creation at baptism of a new and indelible nature within us. Faithful members of the Church, therefore, do not cease to be part of the Church just because they have died a physical death.
The Revelation to John chapter 5, and shows us a picture of the twenty-four elders, who symbolize the Patriarchs and Apostles, presenting before the throne of God the prayers of Christians on earth. And in chapter 7, we are told that the Saints in heaven do not cease from serving God night and day. Taking these two readings together, we can see that part of the service of the Saints who have gone on before us is intercessory prayer on behalf of the Church on earth. The veil between the worlds is thin – indeed thinner than we most often suspect.

Our pre-Christian forebears had it right: there is a wistful quality about autumn that makes us mindful of the passing of things, and that reminds us that there are relationships which are stronger and more enduring than death. The good news of the feast of All Saints is that, in the Church, we are given hope by the example of the Saints who, beset by the same sins and infirmities as we are, were made righteous by God and now enjoy Him forever. The good news of the feast of All Saints is that, even when the daylight wanes and darkness seems to gather, we are bound as brothers and sisters to those who live where no shadow comes, and they aid us by their prayers and wait in joyful expectation for the fullness of time in which we all, by the mercy of God, may come where nothing passes, nothing wanes, and all is made whole in Heaven’s high summer.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Lilly permalink
    1 November 2010 2:21 am

    Interesting. And actually Pope Gregory IV moved All Saints to November 1st in the hopes of attracting more Pagans to the Christian belief.

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