Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween, Or Lemuria, Or Samhain

Halloween, or Hallows eve, is the evening before the celebration of All Saints Day in the Catholic Church. Hallow, of course, is an old English word meaning holy or saint, as in the passage from the Lord's Prayer “hallowed be thy name.” All Saints Day, or All Hallows, originated when when Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon at Rome to Saint Mary and all the martyrs of the church on May 13, 609. It set aside that day to remember those who died in faith. The Pope probably chose this date in an attempt to suppress a Roman pagan day of the dead called the Feast of Lemures. In this pre-Christian holiday, Roman citizens cleansed their homes of spirits of lost souls by an offering of beans.

Later Pope Gregory III began a tradition of remembering the faithful dead on November 1. Many decades passed, however, before Europe more uniformly recognized this new date. Interestingly, November 1 fell on the same day as a Celtic day of the dead festival called Samhain. This marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of the Celtic new year. The Irish recognized the day with the burning bonfires, lighting candles in hollowed out turnips, and dressing is disguise to ward off spirits of the dead. Adults and children practiced “guising” by going house to house costumed in disguise offering entertainment in return for food and money.

In North America this tradition continues with the lighting of pumpkins and children “guising” door to door requesting “treats” with the implied threat that a “trick” may follow if the one does not comply with the demand for a treat.

(Now that we are "empty nesters," we no longer participate. After years of providing treats, I now personally prefer to execute the trick. I put out a small card table with a sign informing the “guisers” that I had to go out of town, that on the table I have provided two large bowls of candy, and that they should be honest and only take one piece so everyone can enjoy a treat. Then next to the sign I place a couple of  empty bowls.)

Now some mainline Protestant denominations retain All Saint's Day on their calendar of religious holidays. Other more traditional reformed churches instead recognize Reformation Day. On October 31, 1517 that Martin Luther posted his protests on the door of All Saint's Church in Wittenberg.

Many American fundamentalist and Pentecostal bodies who believe they derive their theology straight from the bible and know next to nothing about church history hold “Harvest Festivals.” Christians kids can avoid the pagan habit of dressing up in costumes and “trick or treating” door to door by, well, dressing up in costumes and “trick or treating” at the church gymnasium.

And then there's those churches who use the season for evangelism by creating their own versions of haunted houses . These houses usually sport the name "Tribulation House" or "Hell House" and  dramatically portray the "Good News" of the great tribulation and damnation. Below is the trailer for one from last year.

So happy halloween! Or Lemuria. Or Samhain.

1 comment:

CW said...

An interesting read – as always, Victor. The history of it is fascinating. It’s kind of funny how we just continue with these traditions while most of us don’t really know what they originate from.

Your “empty bowl” story is funny. One year we reluctantly agreed to go to a neighbor’s house for Halloween, so I put out a big bowl of candy with the typical sign about taking one. Shortly after we left I went back to get some from my house, and lo and behold all of the candy was already gone. That was when I lost my faith in humankind (hahaha – just kidding!). Sort of makes me wish I had saved my money and done it your way, though.

Since my youngest son is off to college this year I’ve decided to skip handing out candy and go out dancing with my friends instead.