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[Chalice] Which Halloween do we Want? [Chalice]

Presented October 26, 2003, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

God knows sometimes I am slow on the uptake, but this is one for the books. I have been the minister of this church for years and never have I asked you or raised the question of how we should celebrate Halloween, what Halloween means to you, is Halloween important to you? Is there a way of celebrating Halloween as a Unitarian? Do you think Halloween is just a silly holiday meant mostly to sell candy and that we should just move on to Thanksgiving?

I know one reason why I have never raised these questions here is that I myself am not a big Halloween person. The day means so little to me that usually during this week I have to remind myself to go buy some candy so that I am prepared to dole it out should I be at home that night when the kids come around. Lest you think I am a Halloween curmudgeon, I really enjoy having the kids in their costumes come to the door, but to me that's about as far as Halloween goes. Well, that and remembering not to let my beloved black cat out of the house that night lest any harm befall her at the hands of a trickster.

But maybe it's not just me, maybe there's a general neglect of Halloween in Unitarianism in general. Of all the topics of all the talks I have given here over the years, I have never failed to find in our Unitarian book, Singing the Living Tradition, a reading that went rather perfectly with the talk. But as I thought about Halloween this week, I looked and looked and there is no reading for Halloween in the book. Even the UUA website didn't have much about Halloween. If there is such a thing as a neglect of Halloween in Unitarianism, this is very odd because Halloween could be the most Unitarian of all holidays. Unitarianism as a religious movement is nothing if it isn't syncretistic, combining and mixing all sorts of religious movements and traditions, and certainly Halloween is the most syncretistic of holidays. I think there is a lot to ponder in this holiday we call Halloween. This holiday means so many things, has so many meanings, goes in so many meaningful directions that it really is quite surprising that Halloween means to many of us in this culture so little, almost nothing. So the question arises finally, What do we want Halloween to mean? What does it mean to us individually and as members of this church? As Unitarians? Is there any connection for us between being Unitarians and celebrating this holiday?

The great thing about Halloween is that it can mean so many things. Halloween as we celebrate it in America today is such a bizarre mixture of myths and traditions and cultural practices drawn from such a diversity of cultures and time periods that we really should think of it as a great hodge podge. From this great hodge podge one can rightly extract three main sources or traditions that are important in creating the holiday we celebrate today as Halloween, 2 of which are pre-Christian. These 3 would be the religious practices of the Celts, the second would be the holidays of the Romans who conquered the Celts in the first century, and the third would be the Roman Catholic Church's attempt to Christianize these pre-Christian practices with the Catholic holiday commemorating all Saints.

Every history of Halloween starts with the Celtic holiday Samhain (Sow-in), on the last night of October celebrating the close of the year and the end of summer, the bringing in of the harvest, and the beginning of a long, cold winter. The Celts, like so many other cultures before and since, associated this time of year with death. The Celts believed that on Sow-in the boundary between the living and the dead became blurred. The ghosts of the dead returned to earth and mixed and mingled with the living. Thus, the most primitive origins of this holiday called Halloween is in that overwhelming sense of the death of nature and the natural world we have all around us at this time of year.

Since we live in a climate not that dissimilar from the Celts in the British isles, we can certainly understand that sense of the death of nature and that mixing of life with impending death. Who doesn't experience that right now, as we mentally and physically prepare for winter? In what ways do you experience this death of nature, death in nature most acutely at this time of the year? Is it in how dark it still is even at 7:00 in the morning, or now how dark it will be so early in the evening? Or for you is it the trees that a few weeks ago were beautiful but now are bare, the leaves that were beautiful and inspiring but are now shriveled up and dead on the ground and have to be raked up and discarded, just another thing to do before winter comes? Is it the dropping temperatures, the cold breeze, the jacket you have to put on, the convertible top that has to stay on the car? At this time of year it seems everything has a touch of death to it, and we feel this just like the Celts and countless other cultures and peoples.

One way I personally experience this touch of death most acutely at this time of the year is through the World Series, the climax and, unfortunately, the end of the baseball season. To a baseball fan, baseball is not a once a week event like football is. Baseball to a baseball fan is a constant companion for several months of the year. From April to the end of October, if I choose I can do whatever I am doing with the happy and soothing sound of a baseball game on the radio. But at the end of October this source of pleasure and happiness comes to an abrupt end. The last out of the World Series is always like a little death to me. My constant companion, baseball, leaves me just as I am; having to deal with the leaves and the cold and all the other signs of death in nature.

So one thing Halloween does-or should do-as a holiday is to recognize this overwhelming sense of death in nature at this time of year and the sense of melancholy that comes with it and gather us together to deal with it, to expel it, to accept it, to have fun any way. The best way to celebrate Halloween, the way more in touch with the primitive roots of the day, would be to have a party together rather than simply to dole out candy from our own homes separately.

Of course Halloween is about more than the death of nature. It's about the deaths of people, of ghosts coming back to visit, of how we remember those who have died, and about how we are sometimes haunted by those memories, and maybe even haunted by the actual ghosts of the people we remember. From its earliest origins and throughout its developing history, this holiday we call Halloween has always been about the deaths and ghosts of people. The Celts believed that on the last night of October the spirits of the dead returned to earth to mix with the living. The Romans when they ruled the Celts combined this Celtic celebration of Sow-in with their Feralia, their own late October celebration of the dead. And when Christianity came upon the scene it chose feast days to celebrate the deaths of martyrs but it had so many martyrs it ran out of days in the year so in the 8th century the Church chose one day, the First of November, to honor all the martyrs, and eventually all the Saints. In popular piety all Saints Day became Allhallowmas (the mass of all hallows-all saintly people). The night before was known as All Hallows Eve, and eventually as Halloween.

So, whether we realize it or not, there is within the very word we use for this holiday, Halloween, a connection to the spirits of the dead. Even the tradition of trick or treating, that most fundamental trait of Halloween as we celebrate it now, probably derives originally from this connection to the spirits of the dead. Catholics in England 1000 years ago would celebrate All Souls' Day with a parade during which the poor would beg for food from door to door and families would give them pastries called "soul cakes"

©2003 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Robert J. S. 2003. Which Halloween do we Want?, (accessed July 9, 2020).

The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.
More Sermons from the Rev. Dr. Rob Manning.