Faith Matters

The significance of Halloween to 'the dying and going'

Halloween exerts a fascination on the human imagination, possibly because of the desire to discover the link between this world and the next, writes Fr Martin Henry

Halloween celebrations, such as those held annually in Derry, underline how the festival has gone from strength to strength. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

ALL Saints' Day or, less commonly, 'All Hallows', has nearly always been overshadowed by the more popular and immediately recognisable celebration of Halloween, as we call the 'even' or 'vigil' of All Saints' Day.

While interest in All Saints' Day, which we mark on November 1, is relatively low-key, interest in Halloween on October 31 has been going from strength to strength in recent decades.

The festival of Halloween is thought to have originally been brought to the United States by mainly Irish emigrants.

But latterly it has spread to many other countries: one more indication of the global influence of the world's now dominant culture.

It is surmised that the festival owes its remote origins to the significance Celtic peoples attached to the time marking the start of winter, which they called Samhain, meaning 'summer's end'.

The imaginative leap from a moment marking simultaneously the end of a period of life and growth and the beginning of one of death and decay, to a heightened awareness of the elemental contrast between life and death, and a consequent concern for the ultimate connection between the world of the living and the world of the dead, is not too difficult to make.

Yet the Celtic origins of Halloween have been contested.

Some date the beginnings of interest in the Feast of All Saints itself, in the west at least, back to Pope Boniface IV's consecration of the Pantheon in Rome to 'St Mary and the Martyrs' - now the church of Santa Maria Rotonda - in the early seventh century. In this way, another vestige of antique pagan polytheism, 'pantheon', was decently Christianised.

The celebration was then fixed for May 13. The shift to a November 1 date seems to be connected with Germany, rather than Ireland or Britain.

And the change occurred in the eighth century, apparently at the urging of Pope Gregory III, who showed a great interest in the Christianising of Germany, as witnessed by his support for the 'Apostle of Germany', the English missionary St Boniface.

Interestingly, Gregory III was himself Syrian by birth, and it appears to have been in Syria that the remotest origins of the Feast of All Saints are to be sought.

In Edessa a feast day commemorating 'the martyrs of all the earth' is said to be traceable back to the mid-fourth century.

In the west the date of November 1 for such a feast day seems to have been finally settled by Pope Gregory VII in the 11th century, by which date the celebration had been expanded to include all the saints of the Church, famous and anonymous.

October 31 itself thus became fixed as Halloween, or the Eve of All Saints.

Intriguing though speculation can be about the origins and development of the celebration of Halloween, this antiquarian interest alone can hardly explain the fascination the festival seems to exert on the human imagination, and not just the Celtic or even wider western imagination.

The turning-point of the year from life to death appears to have left its mark in non-western cultures also, suggesting that it speaks to a universal human intuition or concern.

This, as already mentioned, is the desire to discover the link between this world and the next, between life and death, or the world of the living and the world of the dead.

Whatever else can be said of the next world or the 'other' world, it's where the dead now reside, and where the living are all heading.

As well as the dead and gone, there are also the "dying and going", as Samuel Beckett once put it. It is thus a topic of interest to everyone.

The fact that Halloween, thanks to the interest the cinema has taken in the subject in recent years, is now associated particularly with horror stories or ghost stories testifies to an instinctive human interest in 'another' world or another 'supernatural' dimension to experience and, of course, to the hope for survival beyond death.

For it is from this 'ghostly' world that 'spooky' events are thought to emanate - the word 'spook' itself comes, it seems, from a Middle Low German term for 'ghost'.

On the other hand, the fact that Halloween is also associated with dressing up in frightening costumes to play tricks on the unsuspecting also appears to indicate an attitude of laughing at, or having fun at the expense of, evil and its sources, as if ultimately the 'other' world were in fact fundamentally good and able to deal with all of life's terrors.

This is, it scarcely needs stressing, a Christian theme par excellence: that good is stronger than evil, that love is stronger than hatred, that life is stronger than death; in a word, that God is the supreme reality.

Perhaps in its own more homely and accessible way, the festival of Halloween tries to enact that same message.

:: Martin Henry, former lecturer in theology at St Patrick's College, Maynooth, is a priest of the diocese of Down and Connor.

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