Of Saints and Samhain

As this month comes to an end, children across the nation are tuning their hearts to the sweet melody of tiny candy bars landing inside pumpkin-shaped pails. Of course, this Halloween is spookier than most. With the coronavirus unabated in a majority of communities, trick-or-treating will be a muted affair except for the “Candy Cannons” I’ve been reading about. 

These creative contraptions can easily shoot goodies to the curb and beyond – effortlessly meeting social distancing requirements. And since “It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye,” let’s hope those masks kids are wearing this year will protect them from both Covid-19 and Candy Corn projectiles. 

Certainly, there is precedent for seeking protection at Halloween. An ancient Celtic festival, called “Samhain” celebrated in the autumn of each year, was intended to ward off death, terror, and the conspiring evil spirits of winter. Building great bonfires, lighting jack-lanterns, and wearing spooky costumes to scare away hellish specters was the orthodoxy of the day.

As Christianity gained a foothold in these Celtic regions, this ancient custom was commandeered by Roman Catholicism (most “Christian” holidays share such a history). The fires, costumes, and customs remained, but they were adapted to honor the dead instead of acting as a talisman against evil.

November 1, was declared “All Saints Day,” and the night before this solemn festival became the evening of the saints – a “Hallowed Eve.” Our Halloween evolved into a night of sanctioned revelry before the arrival of the next day’s required holiness. Think of Fat Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, but with more candy bars and fewer stringed beads.

Given the nature of 2020, we would be wise to reimagine this year’s Halloween in light of both its ancient and Christian roots. In the days to come the cold air will begin to blow and an uncertain winter will set in. The coronavirus will continue to take its horrific toll. This nation’s most contentious election in more than century will mercifully end, but the aftermath may prove more frightening than any phantom rapping at the door. 

This season calls us – implores us – to steady ourselves for the days ahead, days that will require this generation of Americans to employ a resolve never before demanded. This is a time, like that of the ancients, when we are called to resist evil and death. And for those who are Christian, like our forbearers it is required that we celebrate all that is good, holy, just, and kind – for this year has brought enough horror.

No, I’m not appealing to fear, but to focus. Focus on those you love and live with, and celebrate those who have already passed but continue to live within you. Focus on withstanding – and refuse to participate in – anything that is cruel or unjust. And like the eager child you once were, walk through the dark knowing that a door will open, light will shine, and all that is sweet and good may lie just ahead.