Warning! Your home may be invaded tonight by ghosts, goblins and monsters — not to mention some superheros and princesses. It’s Halloween! It’s a familiar and traditional sight to see youngsters approach our homes and, with a mix of curiosity and certainty, seek a treat. It’s really the only time in our current culture where we accept a knock on the door from strangers. We now shun people walking through our neighborhoods with clipboards and we put “do not knock” signs on our doors. We live with a little more apprehension than we did years ago.
So what is it about Halloween that has such holding power over us? It turns out that the origins of this festival were based on the shortening of daylight. In ancient Ireland, Druids celebrated this reality with a great fire festival to encourage the dying sun not to vanish and people danced around bonfires to keep evil sprits away. People also dressed in frightening costumes to keep the spirits of death away. When Christianity reached Ireland, believers tried to counter this time of fearing death with a celebration of life: All Saints Day. Saints were people, who though they had died on earth, were alive in heaven. Eventually the spooky elements of the Druid night came to be known by their relation to the Christian Feast: All Hallows Eve — or “Halloween.”
Some of the superstitious elements of pagan religions corrupted the notion of sainthood over the centuries. Saints — and medals or statues — were treated as good luck charms, and some thought they could entice the saints to procure a cure or get them a spouse or a job, or protect them from the plague. Competing towns and city-states throughout Europe vied for having the more powerful saint –often “proven” by military victories or prosperity for the inhabitants. And even today, some people have memories of grandparents talking to statues or holy pictures as if these were really the saints themselves. Some people mistakenly believe that Catholics pray to saints. Catholics pray to God.
The Catholic tradition is that we ask saints to pray for us and with us. Just as one person might say to another, “Would you pray that my grandmother gets well?” or “Please pray that I get a better job,” we could say this not only to our neighbors and family members, but to the people we know have gone before us who we believe are with God. It comforts many people to know that those in heaven are watching over us and joining us in praying to God for us. People keep pictures or statues of saints the same way they keep photos of relatives — to remind them of the person they know, love and admire. Some saints of old have lived such extraordinary lives, that their example encourages us to be extraordinary too. Others lived quiet contemplative lives that inspire us to find quiet, thoughtful time in our busy lives today.
As Halloween 2018 fades into memory, with just a few more pieces of candy leftover in the bowl, we can confidently know that our loved ones who are with God don’t fade away, but give us hope and example as we encounter the joys and sorrows of our lives and as we head out to meet them again some day.