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Darkness and Light: Hallowe’en and Reformation Day

October 2019 | by Stephen Rees

We dread the last week of October. Why? Because we have a nervous dog. The closer we get to the end of October, the more reluctant he is to leave the house, especially after dark. He’ll stiffen his legs and refuse to move. He’ll whine and shake. He’ll search for hiding-places: under the stairs, under a bed, behind the sofa.

Why? What’s bothering him? Easy. Bangs and flashes. The firework season has begun. Round our way it starts a couple of weeks into October, it erupts on Hallowe’en night and again for Guy Fawkes, carries on all through the long run up to Christmas, and then on to New Year. And the New Year celebrations only end a week or so into January. Sure, it will slacken off after each of the big events but it won’t stop completely until they’re all over.

Hallowe’en – it just keeps growing

Hallowe’en has become a bigger and bigger thing over recent years. I don’t remember it having a high profile when I was a child growing up. But in the last few years it’s become immense. On Hallowe’en night, we’ll have to answer the door to a stream of youngsters wearing witches’ hats or vampire robes, carrying executioners’ axes and shouting ‘trick or treat!’. Step into any supermarket and you’ll find aisles lined with costumes, masks, lanterns, decorations and aerosol cans of fake blood. Walk through our local housing estates on the night of Hallowe’en and you’ll find you’re steering your way through street parties where ghosts, ghouls, ogres, monsters, skeletons and wolfmen dance to eerie music amid the flashing of blue lights.

Schools and young people’s groups embrace Hallowe’en enthusiastically. Your children go to a woodwork class? Then expect them to be helped to construct wooden vampire bats (our children said a polite ‘no thank you’). Send them to a Beaver Scouts’ group? ‘The Beavers discarded their uniform this week for monstrous and wonderful costumes for their Hallowe’en Party. There were witches, vampires, ware wolves, glow-in-the-dark skeletons, monsters, Frankenstein and even a pirate. With Hallowe’en music playing in the background, they all had turns around the hall… with pumpkins aglow’. Do they have poetry lessons in school? Well if they do, you can safely assume that they’ll be reading poems about headless highwaymen and ghostly visitants.

The Eve of All Hallows: prayers for the dead

Where did Hallow’en begin and why is it celebrated on October 31? Well, the name is just shorthand for ‘the eve of (i.e. the evening before) All Hallows’. In the Roman Catholic church calendar, November 1 is kept as the Feast of All Hallows or All Saints Day (the word ‘hallows’ just means saints). In Roman Catholic theology, a saint may be someone who lived such a holy life on earth that he (or she) was able to go directly to heaven without passing through purgatory; or it may be someone who has finished his time in purgatory and is now in heaven. Either way, Roman Catholics are encouraged to pray to the saints and to honour them. Many Roman Catholic ‘saints’ have their own days when faithful Roman Catholics are supposed to remember and honour them. But in case any should be overlooked, back in the 9th century, Pope Gregory IV fixed November 1 as a day to honour all saints.

All Saints Day (and the three day festival around it) had another purpose too. As well as honouring the saints in heaven, Roman Catholics were encouraged to use this time – especially the evening before All Saints Day – to pray for dead friends and relatives not yet in heaven. The Bible, of course, says nothing about praying for the dead, any more than it does about purgatory or a special class of saints. According to the Bible, all who trust in the Lord Jesus for salvation are saints and their souls go straight to heaven the moment they die. They don’t need our prayers! But the Church was very ready to exploit people’s superstitious fears and their natural anxiety for their departed loved ones.

I’m no expert on medieval Roman Catholic practices but let me quote an article published by the Catholic Education Resource Centre: ‘Apparently how you spent the vigil of All Saints depended on where you lived in Christendom. In Brittany the night was solemn and without a trace of merriment. On their night of the dead and for forty-eight hours thereafter, the Bretons believed the poor souls were liberated from Purgatory and were free to visit their old homes…

Breton families prayed by their beloveds’ graves during the day, attended church for ‘black vespers’ in the evening and in some parishes proceeded thence to the charnel house in the cemetery to pray by the bones of those not yet buried or for whom no room could be found in the cemetery. Here they sang hymns to call on all Christians to pray for the dead and, speaking for the dead, they asked prayers and more prayers.

Late in the evening in the country parishes, after supper was over, the housewives would spread a clean cloth on the table, set out pancakes, curds, and cider. And after the fire was banked and chairs set round the table for the returning loved ones, the family would recite the De Profundis… again and go to bed. During the night a townsman would go about the streets ringing a bell to warn them that it was unwise to roam abroad at the time of returning souls’.

The pagan feast for the dead

How was it that people who called themselves Christians could believe and practise such gross superstitions? Remember, the Bible was a closed book, unknown to the vast majority of people. And in many places, the Church had just taken over the beliefs and practices of the pagan world. Long before Pope Gregory fixed November 1 as All Saints Day, Celtic peoples had their own start-of-winter feast dedicated to the powers of death.

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica,  ‘…on or about the first of November the Druids held their great autumn festival and lighted fires in honour of the Sun-god in thanksgiving for the harvest. Further, it was a Druidic belief that on the eve of this festival Saman, lord of death, called together the wicked souls that within the past twelve months had been condemned to inhabit the bodies of animals…’

Other scholars fill in the details: ‘Halloween had its beginnings in an ancient, pre-Christian Celtic festival of the dead. The Celtic peoples, who were once found all over Europe, divided the year by four major holidays. According to their calendar, the year began on a day corresponding to November 1 on our present calendar… The festival observed at this time was called Samhain… It was the biggest and most significant holiday of the Celtic year. The Celts believed that at the time of Samhain, more so than any other time of the year, the ghosts of the dead were able to mingle with the living, because at Samhain the souls of those who had died during the year travelled into the otherworld. People gathered to sacrifice animals, fruits, and vegetables. They also lit bonfires in honour of the dead, to aid them on their journey, and to keep them away from the living. On that day all manner of beings were abroad: ghosts, fairies, and demons – all part of the dark and dread…’

It seems that the Roman Catholic Church simply took over the pagan festival, pasted onto it its teachings about heaven, purgatory and the saints, and used it for its own ends.

The Church of England

What happened at the Reformation? The Church of England continued to celebrate All Saints Day. Indeed, it is still one of the nine principal feasts of the Church. Robert Nelson wrote the classic Companion for the Principal Feasts and Fasts of the Church of England in the 18th century. He pointed out that in the New Testament the word saint is used for all true believers, but explained that All Saints Day is a festival to remember believers now in heaven. Here is his explanation of the purpose and use of the festival:

‘Q. What seems to be the design of the church in instituting this festival?

A. To honour God in his saints. It being through the assistance of his grace that they were made conformable to his will in this life, and through the bounty of the same gracious Lord, that his free gifts are crowned with happiness in the other.

Q. What farther end doth the church aim at?

A. To encourage us here below to run the race that is set before us with patience, feeling that we are encompassed with so great a cloud of witnesses to work (Hebrews 12:1) in us firmness and resolution of mind, by propounding the examples and patterns of holy men gone before us, who in their respective ages, have given remarkable testimony of their faith in God, and constant adherence to his truth’.

And he urges us to pray not for the dead but for ourselves:

‘O almighty God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of thy son, Christ our Lord. grant me grace to follow thy blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that I may come to those unspeakable joys which thou has prepared for them that unfeignedly love thee, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen’.

Nelson and other godly Anglicans hoped that the festival of All Saints and the celebrations of All Hallows’ Eve could be refocused and used as a means for promoting true spiritual concerns. But there is little evidence that they succeeded. The pagan associations were too deeply rooted. Some of the grosser traditions of mediaeval Romanism were driven underground in Protestant England. But other traditions have continued down through the centuries: bonfires, ducking for apples (a practice inherited from a Roman harvest festival) guising (children in costume begging from door to door), turnip-lanterns.

And the dark origins of Hallowe’en were never quite forgotten. The Reformation may have rooted out many Romish superstitions but the fear of demons, hobgoblins and witches was still very real. The Puritans were sure that Satan and his demons could appear visibly, could consort with human women, could enable witches to fly or to lay curses on cattle. They warned that witches were served by ‘familiars’ – imps from hell in the form of cats, ravens or dogs. Many people believed in fairies – malicious nature spirits which could haunt a home, or who could steal away a human child and leave one of their own in its place. John Wesley in the 18th century had no doubt about the reality of ghosts, including one which haunted the house in Epworth where he spent his childhood. Small wonder if the common folk still believed that evil forces found new power as the dark winter nights set in. Small wonder if they trembled at Hallowe’en and recited old incantations to ward off the unknown threats. Many still believed that this night, of all nights, was the night when the powers of darkness walked the earth.

My generation

Well, I grew up in a country where the vast majority of people had shaken off any thought of supernatural evil powers. Apart from the handful of evangelical Christians in the Christian Union, I never met anyone at school or university who would admit to believing in supernatural forces at all. And when I came back to my home town from university and began getting to know local people, it was very rarely I came across anyone who believed in demons, in curses, in ghosts, in witchcraft.

Yes of course, there were occasional folk who had experimented with spiritualism and had had frightening experiences. There were some who claimed that their homes were haunted by malicious spirits. But the vast majority of people saw such phenomena as nothing more than the stuff of pleasant, lightweight entertainment. Children watched The Munsters or The Addams Family and giggled. The vampires, monsters and wolfchildren turned out to be nice-as-pie, about as sinister as Humpty Dumpty. Grown-ups watched Bewitched and smiled at the adventures of the pretty young witch who opts for the life of a suburban, wholesome American housewife. Yes, there were horror films too – Frankenstein, Dracula and all the rest. But I find it hard to believe that anyone took them seriously. As children, we hid behind the sofa when cybermen were searching for Doctor Who, but we smirked when Dracula rose from his coffin.

In the Christianised but post-Christian, anti-supernatural world I grew up in, people kept Hallowe’en. But it wasn’t a big thing, and it was just a joke. It was an excuse for wearing silly costumes and funny masks – nothing very frightening. People dipped for apples. Children played harmless tricks. And it was quickly over. Guy Fawkes Night had a much bigger place in the calendar – the celebration of a real historical event (and children had all learned the story of the Gunpowder Plot).

The UK today

I think things have changed – in two ways. Firstly, people are believing in the supernatural again, especially young people. And by that, I mean they are believing in supernatural evil. When we talk on the streets to teenagers, they tell me that they are 100% certain that Christianity is nonsense. There is no God, the Bible is a book of fairy tales, Jesus Christ never existed.

But many of them are sure that evil spirits exist and can possess people; that the dead can return as zombies; that a house can be haunted, that a ring can carry a curse… Or if they don’t believe these things, they’re not prepared to deny them either. They fear supernatural evil, and they are fascinated by it. I am sure that for many young people, the attraction of Hallowe’en is that they feel that they are on the fringes of something dark, forbidden, risky. It’s a bit of fun, and it’s passed off as a big joke, but it has to have that link with the dark unknown.

Think about it. Teenagers could, if they chose to, organise a cowboys-and-Indians themed party. They could dress up as cowboys, Indians, US troopers. They could bang Indian drums and set off smoke signals. They could get drunk on rye whisky, shoot each other with bows and arrows or replica Colt revolvers. They could leave with realistic looking injuries, blood-stained waistcoats. And it would all be boring. Why? Why is it more fun to dress up as vampires than as cowboys? Why is it more fun to stick fangs in your mouth than feathers in your hair? Answer – because the supernatural is cool. And supernatural evil is fashionable.

Things have changed in another disturbing way too. Our society has developed an obsession with horror. Just look at the paraphenalia of Hallowe’en – or don’t if you’re squeamish. We’re a long way from the silly masks of my childhood. One well-known Anglican minister puts it like this: ‘Children and adults dress up as figures that are evil: witches, vampires, ghosts and demons. If you want to be different you can hire costumes to make you look like a chainsaw killer, a psychopathic butcher or even a shooting victim (with authentic-looking bullet holes)… On this one day, we… glorify everything that is evil and unpleasant… Halloween costumes frequently centre on deformities, gory wounds and disfigurement. There are a number of websites that tell you how to create an effective disfigurement; for example, how to create realistic-looking burns and how to make yourself hideously ugly’.

Of course Hallowe’en isn’t the only manifestation of the cult of horror. Computer game designers compete with one another to present ever more sickening simulations of brutality. Horror films today portray torture, agony, distress, in close-up and realistic detail. When the James Bond film Spectre came out in 2015, hardened reviewers commented that it set new levels of violence and cruelty for a film with a 12A certificate (‘two scenes of truly gruesome nastiness… a licence for sadism… another scene not even for sensitive adults, let alone children…the violence has been cranked up and the wit toned down… the first 007 to show pyschopathic tendencies, murdering people as if he enjoys it… plausibly awful acts of violence…’) But as Canon John points out, at Hallowe’en, our entire society sets aside a day to glorify everything that is evil and unpleasant.

Two disturbing trends – the glamorisation of supernatural evil; the glorification of horror. And at Hallowe’en they come together.

Hallowe’en – no thank you

I want nothing to do with Hallowe’en. And I don’t want my children to have anything to do with it either. Do I think they would be exposed to demonic power if they put on a witch’s hat or a skeleton costume? Do I think they would come under a curse if they chanted ‘double double toil and trouble…?’ Am I going to forbid them to read any fairy stories about witches and goblins? No, they can do all those things and know that it’s all fantasy and fun. But why should I encourage them to take part in a festival that exists to indulge our society’s sick obsessions?

Oh, let’s grab any opportunities it brings for gospel witness. When those children knock on the door demanding treats, welcome them, chat with them – and give them a treat. How about an attractive gospel booklet written with children in mind? When their parents invite your children to a Hallowe’en party, thank them warmly, but explain that it’s not something you’d want your children to attend, and tell them why. Tell them about the real forces of supernatural evil, and about the One who came to destroy the works of the devil. And don’t be surprised if you do meet folk who have been left feeling frightened or soiled after Hallow’een. Be ready to tell them about the Saviour who has defeated all the powers of evil.

Hallowe’en – or Reformation Day?

A little more than five hundred years ago, a great preacher decided he would use Hallowe’en for the gospel. On October 31 1517, Martin Luther nailed a notice to the door of the church in Wittenberg. It contained 95 bold statements, written in Latin, denouncing the Roman Catholic doctrine and practice of indulgences. A friar named Tetzel, authorised by the Pope, was selling indulgences – letters of pardon – throughout Germany, to raise money for the renovation of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. His customers were assured that their departed loved ones, facing countless years of misery in purgatory, could go free the moment the cash changed hands. ‘The moment the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs!’ No wonder Martin Luther was outraged. He had not yet reached a clear understanding of the gospel himself. Yet he knew that Tetzel’s teaching was utter deceit. ‘The assurance of salvation by letters of pardon is vain, even though.. the pope himself, were to stake his soul upon it. Every truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without letters of pardon’.

Many historians would point to Luther’s action as the beginning of the Reformation. It was the first shot in the great battle for the gospel which Luther was to wage for the rest of his life. Copies of the theses, translated into German, rolled off the printing presses and spread through Germany like wildfire. Within two months they were being read all through Europe.

How fitting it was that Luther’s protest was made on Hallowe’en! This was the festival when the Roman Catholic Church encouraged the faithful to pray for the dead in purgatory. Luther – though he may not have realised it – was striking at the whole Roman doctrine of purgatory and all the superstitions (and frauds) that surrounded it.

In Germany, October 31 is celebrated as a public holiday – Reformation Day – the day the Reformation began. Believers in many other countries too use this day as a reminder of Luther’s heroic stand. Couldn’t we follow their lead? As Timothy George puts it, ‘October 31 is not a day for the ghosts and ghouls of Hallowe’en but a time to remember the Reformation, especially what Luther wrote in thesis sixty-two: ‘The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God’.

And as Paul puts it, ‘… at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them’ (Ephesians 5:8-11 ESV).

Happy Reformation Day!

Stephen Rees is pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport This article first appeared in the monthly magazine and on the website of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport. www.gbcstockport.org.uk