The three celebrations – Halloween, All Saints and All Souls – are interconnected. Let me explain.
The word ‘Halloween’ means ‘evening’ (‘een’) of ‘hallow’ which is an old English word meaning ‘saint’. Thus ‘Halloween’ means ‘the day before All Saints Day’. I will come back to this.
It seems that the Feast of all Saints was originally celebrated in May but was shifted in the 8thcentury to 1 November where the forces of winter are starting to be felt. Winter in northern Europe was dangerous; it was a period of darkness, little food, the real possibility of not surviving till spring. It was around this date, 1 November, that there was an important pagan festival where the custom was to kill off the feeble animals so that they would not use up all the fodder. This meant huge feasts of meat eating. The fear of death and of winter led to other excesses as well.
It was hoped that these fears would be set aside by the celebration of All Saints and the hope of their support in the coming times of real difficulty. Thus, Halloween was a time for chasing away all that was evil, all the dark forces of nature, the demons and ghouls.
Halloween has lost its earlier sinister aspect and has now taken on the character of dressing up and going around to houses for ‘trick or treat’. This was developed especially in the United States, and took on a ‘spooky’ character where people dress up as ghosts and witches. It is all a bit of fun and not to be taken too seriously.
The Feast of All Saints is a reminder that Christians are in communion with all the holy men and women of the past, those known and these unknown. It is the recognition that we are not confined to this earth but that we have a bright future, and that we are supported by those who have led outstanding Christian lives.
This celebration of all the saints in heaven leads to the Commemoration of all the Souls in purgatory, that is of those who are still on their way to enjoying the blessed sight of God and the blessedness of heaven. They are in what is called ‘purgatory’. The imagination is not helpful here. Purgatory is a time of change, a place or process of purification. It should not be imagined, as it has been in the past, in terms of hell with its fire and punishments but rather in terms of heaven, with its liberation and freedom. All that holds us down, all that hampers our fulness of joy, these bonds are being stripped away. Purgatory is a place of increasing freedom, an anticipation of joy, a place of hope and dawning bliss.
The Commemoration of all the Souls is a time when we on earth and the saints heaven, can share the benefit of our good deeds with those who have gone before us. It is an aspect of the ‘communion of saints’. It means that we can be useful to those who are dear to us, our family and friends. It means that those who have no one to pray for them can also be helped. We are of value to each other in the process of being freed from every limitation and sin.
These three celebrations are linked. Modern commerce and the media have focused on Halloween, but the principal joy of these days is the prospect of eternal life and light, of joy and beauty, of happiness for ourselves and all human brings.