It was during my student days in a deeply Catholic Ireland that I was introduced to the celebration of Halloween. We never celebrated it at home. We celebrated Bonfire Night, with fireworks and the burning of a home made guy. It’s not surprising that the Irish did not celebrate the burning of a fellow Catholic, Guido Fawkes, one of the conspirators in the failed Gunpowder Plot.
All sorts of things get thrown into celebrations and their origins get blurred. Commercialism takes over too. Folklore and religion have also remained closer in the Celtic countries. Folk tales, myths and religion side by side and often intermixed. Strictly, Halloween is the day before All Saints Day, or All Hallows’ Day, when we remember and give thanks for all the Christian saints and martyrs. A day later, we celebrate All Souls’ Day when we remember all our loved ones who have died.
It may be that All Souls’ Day has contributed to the modern practice of Trick or Treating, an activity apparently imported from the United States. Back in the Middle Ages poor people and children went out souling. They visited the homes of richer neighbours and, in return for a soul cake (a shortbread biscuit with sweet spices), sang and prayed for the donors’ souls and for those of their dead friends and relatives. According to Wikepedia, this practice continued into the 1930s and even later in Sheffield and Cheshire.
Christianity has been very good at taking celebrations and adapting them. This time of the year feels like a threshold time and was celebrated by the ancient Gaelic festival of Samhain. For them it marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter, a time of moving from light into darkness. Christianity has reversed this. Having given thanks for those who have lived and died, we move towards Advent the coming of the light in the darkness. I like to think that in offering our message of the eternal light shining in the darkness, we can be fairly relaxed about what Halloween has become.