It's interesting to note that these two publicly-celebrated feasts both in October seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum. But are they really?
There's no denying that Thanksgiving, basically a harvest festival, is a wonderful opportunity for us to renew our gratitude to God. We can never be grateful enough but along with gratitude comes the responsibility of sharing with those who have less.
Reality of death
Halloween is a seasonal feast too, for as darkness falls earlier, it is a reminder of the reality of death which must come to all. It comes on the evening before All Saints and takes its name, All Hallows Eve (hallow or holy), from it. Although it has no direct connection with any Christian tradition, there is no reason to condemn it outright.
The early Church often took pagan practices and festivals and transformed them into Christian ones. In Turkey, the site of the earliest Christian churches, I was amazed to see that Christians used stones from pagan temples to construct their churches and even built churches right within the walls of these temples.
I would have thought that they would have destroyed or at least shunned the possibility of contamination from paganism. But early Christianity adapted itself to the surrounding culture. Perhaps, that was also its way of showing the superiority of the Christian God over pagan gods.
One source says Halloween and its strange practices originated with the Celtic peoples of Wales, Ireland and Scotland. They celebrated New Year's Day on Nov. 1. The evening before, they would usher out the old year with a festival in honour of their god of death (Samhain), the god of the winter season of coldness and darkness, of decay and death in nature.
They believed that evil spirits, demons and witches roamed the earth to greet the season of darkness which belonged to them. They would threaten or play tricks on people. The only way to appease them was to offer them treats or to dress and act like them. They also believed that Samhain allowed the souls of the dead to return to earth for that night thus allowing sinful souls who had been imprisoned in their bodies to be freed for heaven through sacrifices and offerings.
The Druid priests would build huge bonfires on the hillside and from these fires, people would re-ignite their home fires which they had extinguished at the closing of the old year. These new fires from the sacred bonfire would scare off evil spirits, rejuvenate the sun and bring back its warmth. Jack-o-lanterns may be a vestige of these Druidic sacred fires.
All Souls Day
Christianity tried to transfer these celebrations of the dead to the eve of All Souls Day. Masked children would go from door to door and pray for the dead in return for a treat. Many of these customs arrived in the New World with the 1840s Irish migration.
In modern times, adults hold parties and celebrate Halloween sometimes even more than children do. Why? It may be partly because in our work-driven society, we relish a day or an evening to celebrate.
Also it may be for some of the same reasons that the ancient Celts did - one last hurrah of summer before the cold of winter and darkness sets in.
Even though we have all the artificial lighting we need, there is still something within us that regrets the departure of the bright mornings and evenings of summer. We find it hard to go to work and come home in the dark. Perhaps, it reminds us too much of the death to which we are all destined.
Honour the dead
In many countries, the dead are honoured and remembered, especially at certain times of the year. Catholics have a profound devotion to the dead, often displayed on All Souls' Day. In some countries, I have seen Catholic cemeteries looking like festive places: graves decorated with lights and flowers, people wandering all over, relatives congregated at their loved ones' graves, praying and singing with and for their dead. Although in Canada, our prayers for the dead may be less elaborate, we do have a Mass celebrated for the dead once a year at our cemetery.
The natural significance of this time of year is not lost on the Church. Two important feasts bring us to contemplate on who we are and where we are going. All Saints Day refocuses us on our destiny and encourages us to spend our lives for God and others as the saints did. All Souls Day reminds us of our own mortality and to pray for those who have died.
Let us allow these four celebrations, which come so close together (Thanksgiving, Halloween, All Saints and All Souls), to give us pause to reflect during this season of slumber and repose in nature so that our whole lives may be rejuvenated and transformed by the light of Christ.