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Halloween: Holiday in Need of Renovation

Ever since that lovely October evening a few years back when my brand new car was plastered with raw egg yolks by some teenagers in my neighborhood, I've always has some mixed emotions about Halloween. Year after year, whenever I washed my car, I tried in vain to remove the stains running down my left front fender, but to no avail. The wounds inflicted by those Halloween pranksters remained with me until I sold the car some ten years later. And I'm not the only one who's spooked by this Holiday. Robertson Davies wrote these words for the New York Times awhile back:

Halloween deserves a house cleaning. Our strongly superstitious age needs Halloween, but cannot do anything with it in its present degenerate form. Halloween has been thrust too much into the hands of children. Dressing children as ghosts and witches, and sending them out on the night of Oct 31st to demand tribute from the neighbors, or perhaps to proffer collection boxes for a variety of more or less worthy charities, is contrary to the deeper meaning of Halloween. The old festival is not childish, nor associated with good works and community spirit.

On one point, Mr. Davies is right. We have lost the deeper meaning of this season! Halloween is neither childish, nor frivolous. As to what it really means, we'll get back to that in a moment. But Mr. Davies is wrong on his second point. Halloween, in many countries, and in much of the church, has always involved good works, providing food for the poor was part of the earliest tradition. In Europe, special Halloween cakes, made of breaded dough, called "Soul food" were given to the children of the city, particularly the poor children. It was a feed the hungry program with a lot of extra fun and excitement thrown in. Collecting for UNICEF or what have you is right in line with the oldest traditions of Halloween. Alternatively, this year one might consider organizing a fund raising effort to help with hurricane relief right here at home. For a list of widely respected relief agencies involved in such work.

But as to the deeper meaning? Originally a Celtic festival marking the end of fall and the beginning of winter, the Celts called it the Death of the Year, it was originally a time when the ghosts of the dead came back to haunt the living. Specially targeted for terror were the living who had not given proper remembrance to their dead. Halloween was the night when the spirits of the neglected dead took vengeance on their ungrateful and unworthy descendants. These departed spirits returned with a vengeance; they rampaged through the land in the form of bats and owls, ghosts and goblins, not always too careful where their destruction fell.

The Christian Church had an entirely different idea. Why not make this a time to celebrate those who were especially worthy of celebration. Don't sit back passively to by haunted by the past, why not take the initiative. Use this season of the dying year to single out those dead who are worthy of remembrance. Pay tribute to their accomplishments, note their trials and tribulations, celebrate their lives!

At first the church celebrated the lives of martyrs, those who had actually sacrificed their lives for the church. Then on a more positive note, it became All Saints Day, a time of tribute to those few who deserved that honorific title, saint. Finally, an additional celebration was added. All Soul's Day, observed on November 2nd, is a time of remembrance for departed loved ones, a time of respect for all who have proceeded us.

But back to Mr. Davies. He continues, "If we were to take a new look at Halloween, what might we do? Surely revive the custom of giving some respectful heed to our forebears. We of North America are not so likely to do this as are the peoples of the rest of the globe. Is it because of our driving ambition to do better than our parents? Like it or not, to reach middle age with less money or less prestige than our father had is somewhat to lose face. Stupid of course, when put like that, but who is prepared to argue that we are not stupid in several important ways? Nevertheless, our forebears are deserving of tribute for one indisputable reason, if for no other: without them we should not be here. Let us recognize that we are not the ultimate triumph but rather we are beads on a string. Let us behave with decency to the beads that were strung before us and hope modestly that the beads that come after us will not hold us of no account simply because we are dead."

I like that. There is a need to honor those who have gone before us. In fact, anthropologists tell us that one of the very first things that distinguishes human life is this propensity for remembering the dead. At the most basic level of all, caring for the bones of the dead. Perhaps not so weird when you think about it. For the people who cared for their dead were equally concerned about the living, and the yet unborn. What shall be the fate of the next generation? How will the decisions we make now effect those who come after us? These are questions well worth pondering on Halloween, or any other night. And if this rather frivolous, and sometimes destructive holiday can become the occasion for pondering such question as these, then Halloween will have endured exactly the "house-cleaning" that it needs. And all of us will be the better for it.


Halloween: A Pagan's Rebuttal
This article prompted a strong reaction from a pagan reader who felt that my use of the word "pagan" was seriously misinformed. Since here rebuttal was well written and expresses a point of view held my many, I have included the entire text of her rebuttal here.

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and Executive Director of
  CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2005).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).

Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.  

For more information about Charles Henderson.