AS millions of children and adults participate in the fun of Halloween on Friday, few will be aware of its ancient Celtic roots.
In Celtic Ireland about two millennia ago, Samhain was the point between the lighter (summer) and darker halves (winter) of the year. At Samhain, the gap between this and the other world was at its thinnest, allowing spirits to pass through.
People’s ancestors were honoured and invited home, while harmful spirits were warded off. People wore costumes and masks to disguise themselves as spirits to avoid harm. Bonfires and food played a large part in the festivities. The bones of slaughtered livestock were cast into a communal blaze, household fires were extinguished and started again from the bonfire. Food was prepared for the living and the dead and was ritually shared with the less well-off.
Christianity incorporated honouring of the dead into the Christian calendar with All Saints (All Hallows) on 1 November, followed by All Souls on the following day. And the wearing of costumes and masks to ward off harmful spirits has survived as Halloween customs. The Irish emigrated to America in great numbers during the 19th century, especially around the time of famine in Ireland during the 1840s. The Irish carried their Halloween traditions to America, where it is now one of the major holidays of the year.
November is the time of the year when we remember the souls of loved ones who have gone before us.
November is a difficult time of year. The beginning of winter brings long nights and cooler days. This can be a time of loneliness and anxiety, especially for those who live alone. In our Celtic tradition, we have a great sense of our own mortality and vulnerability during this month. The Celtic festival of Samhain was a time to remember all who had gone before.
Death is difficult and painful. It strips us of the familiar and often leaves us naked and vulnerable with our bereavement and painful losses, which we all have experienced when a loved one dies. The death of a loved one often leaves many unanswered questions as we attempt to carry on without a husband or wife, sibling or friend.
Perhaps the two most powerful lines in the entire Gospel describe the human emotion felt by Jesus when his friend Lazarus died: “Jesus wept.” Jesus knew the pain and hurt that comes when a loved one dies. And for God to fully embrace the human condition, he also had to embrace death itself through his son. The humiliating and brutal manner of Christ’s death united God with all types of suffering and persecution. The final words that came from our dying God was a prayer of welcome and wonderful invitation: “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”
We know from our experience that the leaves will blossom again, that spring will come. Christ’s death was the ultimate demonstration of love by his father. As he was awoken to new life and resurrection, so, too, are all of us who believe in him. As we remember our loved ones who have died and pray for them, we do so with great hope in our hearts.
St Paul tells us that “our true home is in heaven”. May all our loved ones enjoy the eternal promise of life and peace in the happiness and joy of God’s presence. Jesus tells us: “I am going ahead of you to prepare a place for you, so that where I am, you, too, shall be.” And despite the pain that comes when a love one dies, in faith we are encouraged to hope in the reality that God’s love is even brighter than death itself.
Pádraig Pearse once told a beautiful story to demonstrate our Christian hope regarding death. In the month of September, the little boy asked his mother where do all the swallows go to? She replied: “To the land where it is always summer.”