by Anthony Egan SJ
This week many parts of the Christian Church celebrated two feasts, All Saints (1 November) and All Souls (2 November). Closely connected to them, Halloween (31 October) is a holy day for Wiccans and neo-pagans – and a secular holiday in many countries, particularly for fans of horror and fantasy literature.
Many historic churches of the West, Catholic and Protestant, celebrate All Saints on 1 November. Eastern Christianity traditionally celebrates it on the first Sunday after Pentecost. Some historians believe it was set on 1 November as a Christian answer or alternative to the Celtic pagan festival of the dead called originally Samhain, now Halloween. Other sources suggest it was first celebrated in Ireland on 20 April, and that its present date originated in Germany before becoming the standard date in the Western Church.
The feast acknowledges all saints, those recognised by the Church and those yet to be canonised. If we define a saint as a person who is in union with God (in other words, in Pauline language, the ‘elect’) we can see the extent of the cloud of witnesses we remember.
Fewer churches celebrate All Souls, with Catholics focusing on remembering all who may be in Purgatory. More broadly it celebrates all our beloved dead and all who have died, whom we hope are, or will be, in union with God.
In all honesty, our limited knowledge of the mind of God must make our definitions of these feasts fluid. For all we know, there may well be folk we pray for who are already fully united with God (i.e. saints in the broadest sense) – and there are certainly cases I believe of people who are saints in the technical sense of the word whose official canonisation the church is still debating.
I think of Oscar Romero. Though declared a saint by many straight after his martyrdom in 1980 – a saint ‘by acclamation’, a process common in early Christianity – he was only officially canonised a few weeks ago. In all humility, let me add, I don’t think God felt the need, or obligation, to take as long as we did!
And how, finally, might Christians respond to Halloween. The spirit of generosity and tolerance that marks inter-religious dialogue, which should respect other faiths and condemn no-one who respects us in return, might well lead us to wish all pagans well on their holy day.
As to the more popular version of Halloween – parties, ‘trick or treat’ and increased numbers of horror and fantasy films on television – this depends, literally in some cases, on moderation and ultimately taste. Personally, I see nothing wrong in such partying so long as one avoids excess. If that is your thing, enjoy.
Though I tend more towards scepticism when it comes to ghosts and things going bump in the night, I also enjoy the genre, not least because it serves as a catharsis for many of the psychological, social, economic and political nightmares we face today.
Dracula, after all, is far less scary than the economic vampirism of corrupt officials and demagogic presidents in our present world.