It may surprise a lot of people to discover that Halloween has a rather close connection to the Christian Church. On the surface, Halloween seems to have nothing to do with what many perceive as church activities. Church seems to be a far cry from dressing up in costumes, attempting to scare people, and collecting treats. And who ever heard of a church that made a special effort to uplift the dead?
Actually, it is on that very point that the church is involved. Many Christians celebrate Nov. 1 (or a Sunday close to that date) as something called All Saints Day” a time to remember the believers who have died. The original commemoration dates all the way back to 609 A.D., meaning it’s been around much longer than our current Halloween traditions.
In modern usage, All Saints is most often a day to remember a congregation’s participants who have passed away in the last year. In many congregations, this happens with a reading of each name, a bell may be tolled, and a candle lit in memory of each of the deceased.
You might wonder why we would do such a thing? The whole idea stems from the early church practice of remembering the lives and example of the great saints on the days that they passed away. So in that club would be included the disciples of Jesus, the pastors and bishops who had done marvelous things in their lifetimes, and other outstanding Christians.
In time, however, the numbers of these saints began to exceed the number of days in the year, so the heads of the church eventually decided to focus them all on a single date.
As I mentioned before, a single date was chosen in the year 609, although the day chosen at that time was May 13. As Christianity spread further into Europe, it encountered late fall Celtic festivals celebrating the end of summer and the fall harvest. Included in those celebrations was an element of death, so bonfires were lit and costumes donned to ward off the spirits.
Possibly as an effort to make Christianity more attractive to the Celts, in the 8th century, Pope Gregory III designated Nov. 1 as All Saints Day.
So how does this relate to Halloween? What will be of interest to us is that the evening before All Saints is known in the church as All Hallows Eve? Now, the word “hallows” may sound odd to us, but if you recall the Lord’s Prayer, we do request that God’s name be “hallowed” or kept holy. So All Hallows refers to the holy ones who have now found eternal rest. The spirits of the dead. A contraction of the full title has resulted in the term, Halloween.
This is how the Christian church is tied to the celebration of the dead. We honour and remember the faithful who have passed away. In the Lutheran tradition, that includes all believers, as Martin Luther claimed that all believers are “simultaneously both saints and sinners”.
We strive to follow Christ, knowing that we are going to fail from time to time. Nonetheless, we are ultimately saved not by doing good things, but rather because God has already saved us, and in reply we thankfully attempt to follow Christ’s example.
All Hallows Eve and All Saints Day are a reminder that we each have a soul, even after the body dies, and that there is a place for all believers in Heaven, even though we have stumbled on Earth. And so we honour the examples set for us by those who have moved on by continuing to celebrate All Saints day.
Rev. Charles Nolting is based at New Hope Lutheran Church.