Monday, 31 October 2016

To Light a Candle on Hallows' Eve

 An article that looks at the Christian character of Halloween - All Hallows' Eve - as the vigil of All Saints Day. Discussing the influence of pagan Celtic practices, its secularisation, and the re-inculturation of what is in and of itself a Christian celebration.

Halloween is a centuries old Scottish abbreviation of Allhallow-Even, Hallow E’en, or simply All Hallows’ Eve – which means All Holy Eve or All Saints Eve: the eve before All Hallows’ Day which is All Saints' Day. Halloween is thus the evening celebration of the Solemnity of All Saints’ Day on which the Church traditionally celebrates the souls of the blessed who are in heaven. This in turn is followed by All Souls’ Day, a day on which the Church especially prays for all the souls who, having died in God’s grace but who weren’t yet perfect to be able to enter the bliss of beatitude, tarry in purgatory. The Church in continuum with Judaism, carries the torch of this belief, which is part and parcel with a belief that through prayers, penance, and alms giving the time of these souls’ purification can be quickened. Halloween, All Saints, and All Souls together form what is known as Allhallowtide, Hallowtide, Hallowmas or the Day of the Dead or in Spanish Dia de los Muertos. A three-day period dedicated to commemorating the dead.

The equivalent of All Saints’ Day was the 13th May which was a day dedicated to celebrating the martyrs which we know was at least somewhat commonplace before c.373 when St. Ephraim speaks of it. Sometime between c.731-741, moving and expanding the scope of the May celebration, the 1st November was dedicated by Pope Gregory III to a commemoration that celebrated all the saints. “This date became popularly adopted as ‘All Saints Day’ in Ireland and Britain.”[i] A century later the commemoration was extended to a feast for the Western churches. The vigil of All Saints’ Day or Halloween, is thus a 1300-year-old Christian celebration that unfolds in a context of honouring the mortally dead – who are alive in God (Rom 6:11; Mk 12:27) – in the eternity of heaven, or the transitory realm of purgatory.

Eventually, as it is supposed, out of superstition that the damned in hell would wreak havoc if they were not commemorated with their own day, the Irish peasants began a custom of banging pots and pans on the 31st October, Halloween – namely to ward off malign influence. Halloween, as a day for those in hell – no doubt informed by their Celtic heritage if it is true – was thus by no means an officially sanctioned or universal practice grounded in what Halloween was, and as its name itself indicates: the eve of All Saints.

It is without a doubt that certain Halloween traditions have drawn their influence from pagan Celtic traditions surrounding the end of harvest festival called Samhain, which was celebrated from sundown of what equates to the 31st October to sundown of the 1st November.

During this festival, Celts believed the souls of the dead-including ghosts, goblins and witches-returned to mingle with the living. In order to scare away the evil spirits, people would wear masks and light bonfires.

When the Romans conquered the Celts, they added their own touches to the Samhain festival, such as making centerpieces out of apples and nuts for Pomona, the Roman goddess of the orchards. The Romans also bobbed for apples and drank cider[ii]

Wearing masks, lighting bonfires and carving turnip heads in the form of the deceased were perhaps the most assailant customs adopted and Christianised. The latter custom of which was translated into jack-o'-lanterns – which were initially made from turnips in the British Isles, and from pumpkins in the nineteenth century in the Americas, believed by some to help ward away demonic spirits.

However, despite the influence certain Halloween customs have drawn from ancient Celtic pagan customs, the principle beliefs that form the heart of the celebration of All Saints and All Souls were in no way informed by Celtic beliefs. Since the veneration of holy men and women, and praying for the dead, are beliefs predating Christianity’s arrival in the European Continent and British Isles. Nevertheless, they are beliefs inherited from Judaism, which for centuries upon centuries held such beliefs as exampled by the awareness of the power of God working through the relics of Elijah (2 Kings 13:21) and the prayers and penances offered for the dead (2 Macc 12:44-45; 1 Sam 31:13; 2 Sam 1:12). Acts which were always considered wholly distinct from the forbidden practice of divination – of seeking to summon and thus commune with the dead by practices of the dark arts (Deut 18:10-11; Is 19:3).

Yet notwithstanding the fact that the beliefs of which All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day were occasions of expressing, are intrinsically Christian and non-pagan, it is not an indictment against Christianity’s authenticity that certain pagan customs, and maybe even dates, have been adopted to mark the Christian faith. In fact, it is quite the opposite, since Christianity is culturally transcendent and yet, because of the Mystery of the Incarnation, it is a faith which can wear the clothes of any culture and which can adopt the system of patterns and symbols employed by any given culture – provided false meanings are replaced with true meanings, and unethical practices with ethically sound, but culturally congruent alternatives. This is the dynamic process of inculturation.

By the 17th century various forms of Protestantism had come to resist and/or reject certain beliefs which surrounded Halloween, such as purgatory, praying for the dead, and 'outright veneration' of the saints. Such resistance was fuelled by abhorrence for superstitions, yet the baby of ancient doctrine ended up being thrown out with the bath water of superstition. Without these positive-doctrines, Halloween, although generally celebrated, tended in Protestant circles to increasingly emphasise the diabolic and the need to ward against evil spirits. This hostility climaxed in 18th - 19th century Puritan antagonism, especially in the Americas, against Catholicism and its beliefs. Whereby Halloween was branded as an un-Christian celebration.

The initial separation of Halloween from Catholic/Ancient Christian beliefs, followed by Puritanical rejection of the celebration of traditional Christian celebrations from Christmas to Halloween, led in large part to Halloween’s conceptual and practical divorce from an explicit Christian context, thus slowly de-Christianising Halloween in a process of secularisation. A secularisation which was reinforced by 19th century folklorists who extrapolated the link between Halloween and pagan Celtic practices. And eventually capitalised by greeting card companies from the 19th century onwards; who propagated the occultist imagery of witches, ghosts and ghouls, which Halloween, torn from its Catholic roots, came to be reduced to, and because of which, is largely rejected as a diabolic occasion by many Christians.

Eucharistic 'Jack-O'-Lantern'
However, despite the form Halloween has been reduced to today, it remains a deeply Christian celebration commemorating those who’ve died in God’s favour. As such, as opposed to outright resistance and a condemnation of what Halloween has become – an excuse to party, dress up, beg for lollies, and revel in what is considered to be the fantasy of non-existent dark forces – what is called for is a re-inculturation of Halloween, of All Hallows’ Eve into Christian belief and practice. Some carry out this re-inculturation by hosting parties where people dress up as saints – since Halloween is literally in name, origin and date the eve of All Saints. In Mexico many do so by holding mortality plays, and dressing up as skeletons or rotting corpses, as a reminder of death and the necessity to live upright lives. This is in similitude to the Danse Macarbe - French for the Dance of Death - which is a Medieval artistic genre, bearing influence to this day, involving depictions of the rotting or skeletal dead, who beckoned mortals to dance with them to the grave. Depictions which endeavoured to awaken people to their mortality, and thoughts of preparing for hereafter. (Read more here).

Hallows Eve': Bangladeshi Christians lighting candles on a headstone
There is also the medieval practice of attending cemeteries to pray for the dead which is still carried on today, and the custom of distributing bread cakes – called ‘soul cakes’ – which used to be handed out to those who knocked on the door, who in turn would pledge to pray for the souls of their benefactor’s relatives.

These such customs can be adopted and adapted to today as a means of being in the world, but not of the world; of being open to the seeds of truth in all things, as opposed to being so vehemently hostile to what is false that one closes themselves off to what is good and true, and thus come to leave such specks of gold unharvested. Specks within our secular culture, within the secular practice of Halloween, which can be extracted for the glory of God and the salvation and relief of souls.

Thus whilst people throughout the world light candles in hollowed pumpkins on this Halloween night for the sheer sake of it, and perhaps some for awry ends; we might do the opposite. Perhaps with a literal candle or lantern, or a fitting All Hallows' celebration of some sorts, to serve as a sign – but what really matters is spiritually, by keeping alight our hearts with prayer on this Hallows’ Eve – for those traversing the mortal plains here below; for those in purgatory, and for those who’ve made it to the Promised Land who can help us get there too.

It seems fitting to end this article on this start of the Day of the Dead, with the fifteenth century anonymous poem and funeral-chant, ‘Lyke Wake Dirge’:

This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
Every nighte and alle,
Fire and fleet and candle-lighte,
And Christe receive thy saule.

When thou from hence away art past,
Every nighte and alle,
To Whinny-muir thou com'st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If ever thou gavest hosen and shoon,
Every nighte and alle,
Sit thee down and put them on;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If hosen and shoon thou ne'er gav'st nane
Every nighte and alle,
The whinnes sall prick thee to the bare bane;
And Christe receive thy saule.

From Whinny-muir whence thou may'st pass,
Every nighte and alle,
To Brig o' Dread thou com'st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

From Brig o' Dread whence thou may'st pass,
Every nighte and alle,
To Purgatory fire thou com'st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If ever thou gav'st meat or drink,
Every nighte and alle,
The fire sall never make thee shrink;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If meat or drink thou ne'er gav'st nane,
Every nighte and alle,
The fire will burn thee to the bare bane;
And Christe receive thy saule.

This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
Every nighte and alle,
Fire and fleet and candle-lighte,
And Christe receive thy saule.

[i] “All Hallows’ Eve,” Catholics United for the Faith, Inc, 1998,
[ii] Susan Hines-Brigger, “Halloween and its Christian roots,” St. Anthony Messenger 109, no.5 (2001), p.58, accessed 31 October, 2016,  from;jsessionid=381B

Danse Macabre - The Dance of Death

 A brief article on the Medieval genre of the Danse Macabre and a poem titled by the same name.

Lübecker Totentanz (Detail), Bernt Notke ~1463.

The Danse Macabre (French) or the Dance of Death, was a genre of art that flourished in late-medieval Europe, in which an allegorical motif of the inevitability and suddenness of death was expounded in paintings, prints, songs and poems. The Danse Macabre involved figures who were dead, or “personified Death summoning representatives from all walks of life to dance along to the grave, typically with a pope, emperor, king, child, and labourer.”[1] The inclusion of people from all spheres of social and religious profiles articulated the universality of death, which comes equally to all.

The Danse Macabre was a reminder of the immanence of death, and were produced in various artistic forms – especially visual and orally – “to remind people of the fragility of their lives,” the importance of using the time one has for good before the judgement, “and how vain were the glories of earthly life.”[2] Such thoughts dominated mid to late medieval life, in the face of the Bubonic Plague which killed up to a third of Europe’s population, and which resurfaced at various intervals over the centuries in death casing bouts.

The dance of death itself, was also an allegory inciting the acceptance of death in those whose souls abided in their mortal frames. Depictions of this ‘dance’ sometimes played out literally in forms of dancing skeletons or corpses, or conceptually by the fact of a dead figure seeking to awaken the living to the music of eternity by means of accepting to dance with death – that is, to adjust one’s steps in life in view of their mortality.

Detail of a miniature of the Three Living and the Three Dead, c. 1308 – c. 1340, Arundel MS 83.

The Three Living and the Three Dead was among the most popular legends which was often depicted in varying accounts in the form of frescos. Generally, the scene is portrayed where three young gentlemen on horseback meet three cadavers who are sometimes described as their ancestors, who warn them with the words: “Quod fuimus, estis; quod sumus, vos eritis” – “What we were, you are; what we are, you will be.”[3]

The Danse Macabre is by no means an irrelevant quirk of the past, since death remains as inevitably and universally apart of life today as it did then. Our Medieval predecessors are often dismissed as ignorant and superstitious; yet there is a superior wisdom that flourished in the Medieval world – a wisdom that comes from the cognisance of death which carries with it an awareness of the place of temporal goods and life, not as a hedonistic end, but as a means towards something greater that demands us to live ethically and prayerfully in stride with the transcendent. A rendering of Ecclesiastes 7:4 speaks of such wisdom: “He is wise who ponders his death”.

Hans Holbein Engraving, 1549.
In our own time it is necessary to stir up this wisdom shunned through a denial and fear of mortality.  Or else it is pushed aside by its pseudo-counterpart that consists in a nihilistic despair that convinces itself death in and of itself gives meaning to life. Whereas if the grave is the final end, then it renders vain life itself, making its meaning no more than a construct passed down through a legacy that will likely be forgotten. Yet intrinsic and universal to the human heart are desires for eternal things - for endless happiness, relationship, and fulfillment. No intrinsically universal desire is an imaginary construct for non-existent realities. For just as the intrinsic thirst for water exists within us because water exists and we need it; likewise, the intrinsic thirst for eternity exists within us because eternity is real and we were made for it. The Danse Macabre imparts this wisdom which consists in reminding us of our mortality, but always in view of our eternity.

It seems pertinent to bring back from the grave of the past the Danse Macabre and to carry on in this tradition, by formulating our own like-imageries of faith. For through such frescoes, which above all must be painted on the ceiling of our minds, God sacramentally invites us to the dance with death – with the selflessness of the Cross. A dance of resignation, acceptance, and delight, through which we come to enter into the mystery of eternal life, because by dancing with the Cross of Death we dance with Christ who says of Himself “I am the resurrection and the life.” (Jn 11:25).

The following poem is written in light of the tradition of the Danse Macabre.

The night was thick, but moon cut through,
Illumining in dark a view,
An ancient scene that feels quite new
That’s carried on since Eden’s rue.

The skeletons awake from tombs once sealed,
No lovely flesh their bones revealed,
They scatter here and scatter there
Like swarm of hare that climb the burrow stair.

Across the grandest floor of hall of life,
Towards their partners scared with strife,
Each swans forth with strides and a leap
As face to skull these destined partners meet.

With a bow, each boned figure states not name
But their once state in life and fame,
An address which ironically
Mirrors their mortal friend identically.

With outstretched hand, and sockets bare that glance,
Extends invite to join the dance –
Some stand stiff whilst others decline,
And few there are who gladly join the line.

Yet nonetheless the song that played from womb,
Its coda starts which ends in tomb,
And those who hand refused to take,
Are took in force by ministers of fate.

And none are left out, discriminated,
For poor and rich alike share bed
Of dirt where all will rest – since Pope,
King, and labourer all form this dance troupe.

What contrast ‘twix the skeletons and folk!
The first who gaily dance and dote,
Smiling so it seems – posture bright,
Whilst limp-sullen partners are pale with fright.

“Must I dance now, when I have much to do?”
Say some whilst dragged through festal que.
“I cannot go! Please come back soon!”
Say others scared who fear impending doom.

Yet the pipes, the violins, harp and flute,
Cymbals and fiddles resolute
Carry on, so the dance goes on,
Heedless to the cries of the summoned one.

A rare spectacle indeed are the few
Who ready and eager stepped in que.
The joy and elegance of these
Exceeds their escorts dead who seem thus pleased.

And Ah! not long has passed from dance's start
When sounds the finest key of art,
Whereat each skeletal lead, spins
Their partner, holding high their hand and sins,

And letting go, the final note is struck
Whence hand in ribs skeletons tuck
Whilst other hand outlaid they bow,
As partner breathes their last and falls to ground.

“What a dance! What a dance! And all must dance.”
Each skeleton in chorus chants.
As vultures come and take the clothes
And rings, flesh, and home from newly disclosed.

Then skeletons return to sleep,
Carrying with them to grave deep
Their newly gathered brethren
Whose souls have flown to meet their en’.

[1] “Danse Macabre,”
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.