It’s true that the origins of Halloween come from a dark, Celtic pagan festival called Samhain. The Celts believed there was a night every fall where the veil between the living and the dead became very thin and indeed, the souls of the dead could cross over to the land of the living. This was frightening as it meant that besides the souls of departed loved ones, the souls of one’s enemies might also come by with evil intent. To ward off the malevolent ones, the Celts would cut up gourds into frightening faces, and themselves would dress in costumes so as to be unrecognizable to the restless, roaming spirits. It was a long and frightening night to be endured.
According to legend, things changed when St. Patrick came to Ireland. He was aware of and saddened by the annual terror the Celts had to endure and so started to teach that as Christians, not only are we not afraid of the dead, but we celebrate the saints who have gone before; those who, still alive in Christ, are always near and dear to us. Patrick started the practice of going out on Samhain with a bag full of sweet cakes and knocking on doors, cheerfully giving them to his cowering friends and neighbors.
Somewhere in there, and I’m not sure of the dates, the practice of cheerfully going out in generous neighborliness, instead of cowering in caged fear, became attached to the church’s celebration of All Saint’s Day. And Halloween, All Hallowed Evening, came to be celebrated on the night before the Church celebrates all the saints who, though invisible to us, continue to pray for and root for those of us who have not yet completed our journey.
Personally, it makes me sad that the Church (in part) seems to have retreated into the very fear-based isolation St. Patrick’s lively faith contradicted. So sadly ironic. And we have done this in so many areas of common life. It seems to me that we could be out participating in the wider culture; joyfully, cheerfully, confidently handing out ‘sweets’ in the various cultural arenas: politics, arts, education, science, festivals etc. We need not do this in the defensive, combative spirit we’ve become famous for, but with a caring neighborliness befitting the character of the Christ whom we worship. And we need not be concerned that we will be tainted in our efforts. For we do not draw from a shallow well, but the inexhaustible Christ who gave himself entirely so that all would know that the organizing and redeeming principle of the cosmos is not self-securing fear, but self-donating love.