All Hallows Eve

All Hallow’s Eve. It is a time when some people believe that the distance between those who are alive and those who have died is somehow a bit closer - a bit thinner. The tradition of Halloween has some of its roots in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, when people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off ghosts. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a time to honor all saints. It was a time of re-thinking the calendar of the church. Modern observations had detected problems with the traditional Julian calendar, but it would be centuries before another Pope Gregory would come up with the Gregorian calendar that we use. The difference in the calendars has to do with leap years. Th Julian calendar had a leap year every four years, assuming that the average year was 365.25 days long. That resulted in the drift of the year around the calendar over periods of multiple centuries. The church had been using the Julian calendar since the First Council fo Nicaea in 325. In the time of Pope Gregory III, people were aware of the drift of the calendar, but they did not know exactly how much or have a plan to deal with it other than occasional and irregular adjustments made by order of the Pope. Gregory III, however, was more concerned with the day to day life of Christians and another calendar problem.

The problem had to do with the number of saints that had been canonized over the centuries of the church. Hundreds of years had resulted in thousands of saints. Since saints are traditionally honored and remembered on the anniversary of their death, the church had to develop a catalogue of saints and their days. Some days there were lots and lots of saints to be officially remembered. Other days had fewer saints. Pope Gregory III decided that there should be one day each year for the veneration of all of the saints who had gone before. He designated November 1 as the day. The celebration of All Saints Day soon became blended with other autumn and harvest festivals that were recognized in various parts of the world. Soon All Saints Day was incorporating some of the traditions of those other festivals, including the traditions of Samhain.

The evening before All Saints Day, October 31, became known as All Hallows Eve, a name which later became Halloween. Activities including festive gatherings, donning costumes and carving pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns became a part of the annual recognition.

The holiday is mostly observed as a secular occasion in contemporary America. Roughly one quarter of all the candy sold annually in the U.S. is purchased for Halloween. These days there is a big business in the sale of outdoor decorations and special lighting for the occasion. Special seasonal costume and accessory shops open up each year, allowing for additional sales and profits. A current trend in the holiday that is hard for me to understand is the increase in the purchase of costumes for pets. In 2019, Americans spent $490 million on costumes for their pets. That’s a lot of money.

This year the festival of Halloween lands on a Sunday, presenting a challenge for worship planners. Because the traditions of the day are a mixture of religious and secular traditions there are all kinds of ways in which confusion can occur. Some traditions become associated with the church even though their origins are elsewhere. There is no religious demand that you dress up your pets in costumes or that you purchase special lighting for your home. Dressing up in costumes doesn’t seem to bring us closer to those who have died or help us give thanks for their lives. Ghosts and monsters aren’t part of the Gospel message.

On the other hand, there is a tradition of Halloween as a children’s holiday. Giving treats to children is a joyful activity. Children love dress up and donning costumes. And there is a long tradition - going back to Jesus - of honoring and welcoming children in the church. For all of my career as a pastor we have welcomed children in costumes to church in the time around Halloween. We have prepared treats for them and celebrated their imaginations with joy.

Add to all of those blended elements and ideas the reality of a worldwide pandemic and a special concern for children who are just now becoming eligible for vaccination and there is a real mixture of emotions around Halloween this year.

Our grandchildren, who live on a farm and who didn’t do any trick-or-treat adventures last year out of Covid precautions, are pretty excited about Halloween this year. They’ve already scoped out the neighborhood of our new house and figure that our street will be a good location for some knocking on doors and ringing doorbells this evening. We’ll gather for a family dinner at our house, but we know the kids will be too excited to eat very well and not long after dinner they will have bags of candy and the temptation to over consume sweets will be real.

We enjoy them. We’ve stocked up on treats to hand out since we don’t know how many children to expect coming by our house. This neighborhood has more children than the places we have lived in recent years, so we’re trying to be ready.

Still, I don’t believe in ghosts. And though I’ve experienced the presence of loved ones who have died, their memories and presence isn’t confined to a single day. I’m more likely to have a memory stirred by a place than a day when it comes to departed loved ones. And Halloween for me is more of a celebration of children than it is of departed family members.

Even though I’m responsible for the time with children during the worship service at our church this morning, I won’t be wearing a costume. I don’t plan to mention Halloween in my comments with the children. I’ll tell them a bit of the opening of the Book of Ruth, the reading from the lectionary for today. Perhaps some of them will recognize Ruth as one of the saints of our life together and even remember her name.

As for drawing close to those who have gone before, I find that my memories are my constant companions and that I have collected a lot of them over the years. I’ve been blessed to know a lot of saints over the years. I’ll try to honor them by telling their stories.

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