St Alban’s Episcopal Church
Tuesday, October 26, 2021
more about Halloween-and why it doesn’t freak us out
Halloween – again
After posting about our plans for Sunday, a reader sent me an email, asking a serious question – Perhaps others of you are wondering the same thing. “I was always taught that Halloween was an evil pagan holiday. I thought Christians were supposed to avoid it. Why are you celebrating demons?”
Well, of course, we aren’t. But I think the questioner was truly anxious, so I want to dispel a few popular ideas.
On the other end of this concern about the evil in Halloween is the very contemporary smugness that suggests that the three-day Christian celebration of All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints Day and All Souls Day/Day of the Dead, are only Christianized versions of the real holiday Samhain – a Celtic pre-Christian holiday.
Let’s sort that out. First, Samhain, the Celtic holiday celebrated the “thin” time between the fall equinox and the winter solstice. All the crops were supposed to be gathered in by this time. As winter-coming darkness deepened, the Celts believed that this was a time when the spirits of the dead might return to be with the living, not all with good intentions. They lit bonfires to keep away the darkness, and wore ugly masks and costumes – not to welcome the evil forces they believed might be about – but to scare them away.
It is true that when Christianity came to Britain, some of the ancient folk customs were attached to the November 1 celebration of All Saints Day, about which I will say more on Thursday.
But for now, remember that it was – and is – a Jewish understandings that the day begins at sunset. And Christians were influenced by this pattern.
That is why we have Christmas Eve celebrations, and the great festival of the Easter Vigil. And it is why we have Hallowe’en – the eve of All Hallows or All Saints. This is from the All Hallow’s Eve worship service at Duke University chapel last year. It begins with the simple liturgy for All Hallow’s Eve, but then at 10:30 at night begins the candlelight celebration of All Saints Day. We will look at the liturgy for All Hallow’s Eve tomorrow – You might be surprised!Jack’s Lantern The British folk story of “Stingy Jack.” or Jack of the Lantern/Jack O’Lantern
(Here’s the origin story of carved turnips, potatoes or beets – eventually brought to the US by the Irish, who then discovered that pumpkins worked even better!)
There once was a man named, “Stingy Jack” who, fearing death, knowing his own wickedness, tricked the devil. He invited the devil for a drink, and the devil happily accepted. But saying he couldn’t pay for his libation, he asked the devil to turn himself into a coin he could use. Since the devil could change himself back again later, the devil agreed. But then Jack didn’t pay for their drinks after all, but kept the coin, which he put into his pocket next to a small silver cross. The cross made it impossible for the devil to change back into his own self again, so he was forced to bargain with Jack for his freedom. After the devil agreed to leave Jack alone for a year, and that if Jack died in the year, the devil would not claim his soul, Jack let the devil go free. Well, a year later, the devil came to take Jack’s soul. But Jack begged for one last taste of the fruit that grew on a nearby tree, and claiming to be too old and feeble to get it, asked the devil to climb up and pick a piece for him. The devil did. But while he was in the tree, Jack carved a cross on the trunk, so that the devil couldn’t pass it to come down. Finally he agreed to Jacks’ demand – to be left alone for ten years. And Jack let him go free again.
Well, in a short time, Jack died. God refused to allow him into heaven, because not even the devil, who kept his promises, should be tricked in that way by a wicked rascal like Jack. So Jack then appealed to the devil for a place to stay – but because of his behavior towards him, the devil refused him, too.
Jack was forced to wander the earth forever – the devil sent him away with only a burning coal to light his way – which Jack put into a hollowed-out turnip to make it easy to carry. He wanders still.
It became customary and fun for Irish and English children to make copies of Jack’s lantern by carving faces into whatever vegetables were at hand and putting lights in them, letting them shine through windows on Hallowe’en.
Obviously, this story reflects the old fear of wandering homeless throughout eternity; it reflects the sometimes superstitious nature of the cross as more powerful than the devil; and it portrays the devil as an adversary – but not dishonorable. He, not Jack, is the injured party, and even God agrees. I have heard a version of this in New Mexico, but in that case it was a woman who tricked the devil. To be unable to die, as was her fate, or to die without any resting place, as Jack’s punishment was, is seen as worse than death itself).