As a friend of mine observed recently, there is something medieval about Halloween. The masks, the running around in the dark, the flicker of candles in pumpkins, the smell of leaves and cold air—all of it feels ancient, even primal, somehow. Despite the now-inevitable preponderance of media-inspired costumes, Halloween seems, in execution, far closer to a Last Judgment scene above a medieval church door, or to a mystery play, than it does to Wal-Mart. To step outside on Halloween dressed as someone—or something—other than yourself is to step into a narrative that acknowledges that the membrane between our workaday, material world and the unseen realm of spirits is far thinner and more permeable than many of us like to think.
This narrative disturbs a lot of people, as the proliferation of church-sponsored “autumn festivals” and “trunk-or-treat” parties suggests. To some of those who worry about it, Halloween is either a thoroughly secular or a thoroughly pagan observance, to be avoided by serious Christians. In the Halloween aisle at Dollar Tree, you’ll certainly be hard-pressed to find anything remotely Christian on offer, unless you count glow-in-the-dark skeletons and black plastic skulls as memento mori designed to remind you that you are not Darth Maul, but dust.
The secular commercialization of Halloween bothers people far less than do its roots in the pagan Celtic festival of Samhain, which the Romans, after the conquest of Britain, eventually conflated with their own Feralia, a feast honoring the dead. When, in the seventh century, Pope Boniface IV instituted the feast of All Saints, to fall on the first of November, the eve of that solemnity coincided with the date of the ancient festival. The addition of the feast of All Souls in the eleventh century completed the three-day Hallowmas, dedicated to the memory of the Christian martyrs and honoring all the faithful departed.
The absorption of pre-Christian cultic observance into the Christian calendar is not limited, of course, to holidays dealing with darkness and death. The Church settled on the date for Christmas by much the same process. Halloween’s emphasis on darkness makes many Christians squeamish, but, to my mind, what my friend observed about the medieval feel of Halloween is more on the money. There is a drama to be played out, like a mystery play in three scenes, and it makes sense only if you observe all three days of Hallowmas—not only Halloween but All Saints’ and All Souls’ days as well. In this context, the very secularity and even the roots-level paganism of Halloween become crucial elements in a larger Christian story.
I don’t especially encourage my children to dress as scary things for Halloween. We are taught, rightly, to avoid flirting with the occult, and the darkest character any child of mine has ever wanted to be is Darth Vader. This year three of my children are going as characters from the Lord of the Rings books, while my teenager has decided to be Lucille Ball. Christian children need not, as some do, dress as saints for Halloween to “redeem” it. There is something right, I think, in acknowledging on Halloween that the day for the saints has not arrived yet. This is salvation history, after all. We are saved from something—even if only from the ordinary, secular world of I Love Lucy, in which the sun rises and sets on Lucy’s dream of being in Ricky’s show.
What their costumes are is less important than the fact that, for a night, my children will be people other than themselves: each of them will be someone who, regardless of real-life fears about the dark, is not afraid to step out into the night. Armored inside their personae, they can laugh at the shadows, as well they should. On the one hand, the powers of darkness are no joke; on the other hand, although Christians have no traffic with these powers, we do not fear them.
On All Saints’ Day, our parish holds a children’s festival, hugely attended, at which children and adults alike dress as their favorite saints. This year mine will be St. Ursula, St. Walburga, St. Gerard Majella, and St. George. I probably will reprise my last year’s appearance as St. Helena, although the True Cross did keep whacking people every time I turned around. The party is such fun that we could almost dispense with Halloween, whose festivities, as we observe them, are minimal by comparison. But the cumulative iconography of being, first, a secular character confronting darkness, and then a saint in light, is imaginatively powerful and valuable.
As our Hallowmas ends, the pageantry and excitement of Halloween and All Saints’ Day give way to the comparative quiet of the feast of All Souls. This final solemnity is a day without costumes. Having been denizens of the night and citizens of the household of God, the children step back into themselves to contemplate their own mortality and pray for our beloved dead. In three days they have enacted the story of their own eternal lives: from darkness to the hope of heaven and the joy of the saints who await them in glory. From mystery to mystery, it’s a drama I would not have them miss.
Sally Thomas, a contributing writer for First Things, is a poet and homeschooling mother in North Carolina.