Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8)
There was a violent banging on the front door one evening just as it was getting dark. We lived on a very quiet street in New Canaan, Connecticut, and nobody ever came knocking like that. Angela and I went to the door and opened it cautiously and then Angela screamed, and the children came running. There stood two people – one dressed like a witch with a black cape and mask and emitting an evil cackle. The other, less terrifying, looked vaguely familiar, even though she was also wearing a devilish costume and mask. I looked down and noticed that the witch’s cape did not quite reach the floor, and two rather hairy legs were visible beneath it.
Then I knew – it was Joe, my clergy supervisor at St. Paul’s Church, and his wife Carol. They were making the rounds on Halloween. They laughed hilariously as Angela and the children peered from behind me wondering about all of the noise. It was the 1970s and we were still adjusting to unfamiliar aspects of American culture. This was most definitely unfamiliar. We had never observed Halloween – not in this way.
We were very familiar with All Saints Day. It was a great celebration in England, and since Angela attended a church school, she fondly recalls taking part in a grand procession to attend St. Peter’s Church in the middle of Nottingham. Afterwards they were given the afternoon off and Angela would often organize a trip to the movies! Halloween was not on our list of traditions, though I did know something of its history.
Halloween began as an observance of “All-hallow-tide,” the time in the church year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful departed. Some historians believe that many Halloween traditions have been influenced by ancient Celtic harvest festivals, particularly the Gaelic festival Samhain, which may have had pagan roots. In England, most of the traditions faded until quite recent years. What customs remained were transferred to that peculiarly English observance five days later on November 5th – Guy Fawkes night – when we fondly remembered the man who attempted to burn down the Houses of Parliament in 1605. This celebration was accompanied by lots of fireworks, huge bonfires on which effigies of Mr. Fawkes were burned, and occasional mayhem!
In the mid-1800s, Irish immigrants came to the United States and many brought their Halloween traditions with them. This included dressing up in costumes, asking their neighbors for food and money, and pulling pranks in the evening on Halloween. In the 1920s, rowdy pranks had become costly to the municipal governments and property owners, especially in major cities. Over time, cities and towns began organizing family-oriented Halloween celebrations, which eventually helped reduce the number of reported pranks. Once candy companies began releasing special Halloween-themed candies, our modern idea of “trick-or-treating” was born. Then the darker side of Halloween has grown in recent years, inspired by an increasing fascination with the macabre and the occult. So how are we to respond?
Our Anglican baptismal liturgy includes six very personal questions beginning with, “Do you renounce the devil and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?” In answering that question we make clear our understanding that the devil is no laughing matter but instead a reality that we renounce, and sometimes we do this in very explicit ways.
I recall visiting a church in New Jersey where I heard a remarkable testimony on this topic. During the intercessory prayer time a woman asked if she might share a testimony of answered prayer. She explained that she was new to the community and that she had rented a house nearby. Once she’d settled in, she discovered that the previous tenant had been heavily involved in occult practices. At night she heard strange noises in the house and objects appeared to move without anyone being near them. Her children saw strange apparitions, and they were all so terrified that they could no longer stay in the house at night. She contacted the church and asked if someone might come over and pray for them. The rector agreed to go and conduct a house blessing and invited two or three intercessors to go with him. They sang, prayed, and sprinkled holy water in each room – and finished with a simple service of Holy Communion in the living room. Afterwards, the rector invited the owner of the house to say a short prayer of cleansing as he poured out the remaining consecrated wine on the ground outside. It was all rather straightforward, but the woman reported that the results were amazing. All of the strange noises and movements stopped and, instead of darkness, the house was filled with light. From that evening forward, they all slept peacefully. She thanked the church for coming, and everyone gave thanks to God.
So how are we to respond to the commercial and cultural juggernaut that Halloween has become? During our time at Truro Church, we decided to offer an alternative celebration. On All Saints Eve we offered a family-friendly evening at the church. We began with a grand parade. Everyone was invited to dress up as their favorite saint – there were a few unusual ones! Then we walked in procession down the right aisle and across the front, then returned up the left aisle. This parade was accompanied by favorite All Saints hymns – including that delightfully quaint English hymn by Lesbia Scott:
I sing a song of the saints of God,
patient and brave and true,
who toiled and fought and lived and died
for the Lord they loved and knew.
And one was a doctor,
and one was a queen,
and one was a shepherdess on the green;
they were all of them saints of God, and I mean,
God helping, to be one too.
Afterwards, we had refreshments and games for all ages, and everyone had a good time! All Saints Day itself is also a wonderful opportunity to remind everyone to give thanks for all of the saints who have gone before us and look forward to that marvelous day when we will all be reunited with them in the presence of our Heavenly Father.
Wishing you all a happy All Saints celebration …