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All Hallows' Eve (Part I): Popes, Purgatory, Pumpkins and the Book of Common Prayer

posted 23 Oct 2014, 04:29 by Camberwell Deanery   [ updated 23 Oct 2014, 05:07 ]

If you walk into any pound shop in Camberwell or Peckham around the end of October or beginning of November, you'd be forgiven for believing that everybody in the country observes a day of celebration of pumpkins, ghosts and skeletons!  It hasn't always been that way, and Christians (even within the Deanery) have different views about how (or whether) to observe All Hallows' Eve (the evening before All Hallows Day; often referred to as Halloween), All Hallows' Day (usually described as All Saints' Day) and All Souls' Day.  Sometimes these days are described as the Triduum (three days) of Hallowtide.

Martyrs image taken from http://bobsanecdotes.wordpress.com/2013/10/05/christian-martyrs/

Early Christians (4th century) used to observe the individual anniversaries of the deaths of martyrs (people who had been killed for their belief in Christ).  Eventually, the numbers of martyrs became so large that a day for remembering all of them was adopted near to Easter.[1]  The early church considered those who had died a martyrs death to be saints (holy people or "hallowed"[2]), and by that, they meant that they were people who now lived in perfect relationship with God[3] and whose prayers to God could be requested and relied upon.  Eventually, Pope Gregory IV moved what we now know as All Saints' Day to the 1st of November and it was made obligatory in 835AD.[4]  

sunset taken from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dark_Sunset.JPG

In medieval texts, the Irish (and Scots) were said to have celebrated Samhain (a week long[5] festival to mark the beginning of winter) on November 1st. It's unclear why Pope Gregory chose November 1st for All Saints' Day, but it was not due to the existence of Samhain on that date (as the Irish were still observing All Saints Day in April).  Early Welsh literature refers to 1st November as Calan Gaeaf (the first day of winter) and attributes no gatherings to it.[5]  All Souls' Day was fixed on 2nd November in the 11th century as a day of prayer for all that had died, particularly those that were considered to be in purgatory.[6]

Samhain is never described in any reliable medieval text[5] and it's possible that the later authors (who weren't pagans) didn't know how it had been observed. Many medieval stories set in November do involve humans being attacked by deities, monsters or fairies which points to the festival being a time of supernatural power, but the stories are not conclusive evidence of what took place on Samhain[5]. Unfortunately, this lack of evidence means that the only guesses we have to the religious significance of Samhain come from sixteenth to nineteenth century folklore.[5]

Ronald Hutton concedes that it's likely that the placing of the Christian All Souls' Day near to Samhain reinforced a prehistoric belief in the danger from supernatural forces as the seasons changed.  The only other evidence for the fear in which the night is held is an analogy in the customs of May Day (when fairies and trolls were said to be active) and those of the opening of winter.  The folklore surrounding All Hallows Eve and the two days following show the time to have been considered dangerous. The rituals employed by the people varied from bonfires (with pebbles), crosses of sticks woven from straw and the carrying of burning peat.  However, Hutton strongly contends "there is no evidence [that a major pagan festival] was connected with the dead"[5]  Steve Roud even goes so far as to claim, "There is no evidence that this time of year was celebrated in England before the Christian feast was created".[7][8]  (Thus, Christians who fear/avoid Halloween may be running from the ghost of Christianity past, rather than any kind of pagan observation).

Soul cakes with a nice recipe image taken from http://theordinarycook.co.uk/2011/11/02/soul-cake-a-shropshire-recipe/

Arguably, it was Christianity that connected Hallow Tide and the dead (see All Souls' Day, above).  Henry VII's ceremonial book suggested the monarch dress in purple and black (colours of mourning) on All Saints Day.[5]   Many churches arranged processions, ordered extra candles and torches, organised entertainment and provided food and drink.  Church bells were rung either on All Hallows' Eve or on All Souls' Eve to comfort the souls in Purgatory.[5]  Both days (but latterly All Souls) have been connected with Soul Cakes (a type of oat cake) given to the poor who would beg for food or money.  Soul cakes,  it is suggested, had a two fold purpose, to be helpful to the soul of the giver and to obtain a prayer from the recipient for the soul of somebody else in purgatory[7].  The process of going door to door asking for cakes, apples, drink or money was known as "souling" (once practiced by adults and later by children) and has been widely attributed to the advent of the modern custom of trick or treating.

Picture of Luther taken from
Reformation image taken from http://www.unitedchurchofsoro.org/pastors-blog/

After the Reformation (a movement which attempted to curb what was considered the excesses of the Catholic church across Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries), All Saints Day was retained in the Book of Common Prayer (as a way of observing those who had lived good lives, rather than those who would intercede on behalf of others), but All Souls days was removed, prayers for the dead were abolished and purgatory was eliminated.

It was not an entirely straightforward process.  Archbishop Cranmer struggled to abolish the practice of "ringing of the bells" to comfort souls.  And then, just as one royal prerogative caused it to cease, Queen Mary brought it back!  When Queen Elizabeth reigned, the ringing was abolished again, but Christians insisted on its continuation and there are records of people appearing in church courts for bell-ringing all the way through the 1560s (perhaps concerned for their relatives).  Even once it had been thwarted, Catholics continued to find ways to remember outside of official ceremonies.[5]

The matter is not entirely settled; the proposed 1928 Book of Common Prayer attempted to mark All Souls[9] and Common Worship acknowledges a "Commemoration of the Faithful Departed" on 2nd November. More recently, and by historical accident, All Souls' placement so close to Armistice Day / Remembrance Sunday has caused a blurring of the themes.

Here and now signpost taken from https://www.off2class.com/present-simple/ - here and now

Christians who align themselves fully with the Reformation (including some within our deanery) believe that "saints" is simply another word to refer to all Christians (1 Corinthians 1:2), whereas other Christians within our Deanery (often those within the Anglo-catholic tradition) still consider saints to be those who have attained a perfect relationship with God and whose prayers might be sought.  Hence you will understand that the more Reformed churches are more likely to observe Celebrations of Light in which Jesus' life in all Christians (saints) is acknowledged.  Other churches will still mark All Saints Day as an observation of the lives of Christians whom the wider church understands have attained perfect relationship with God and still see All Souls Day as an opportunity to pray for all who have died.  

And pumpkins...?  Well, despite the Reformation, in recent centuries, the Irish, Welsh and northern Scots continued their festivities at Hallowmas.  In Ireland, people often wore costumes to collect for the feast and considerable licence was granted in other places when young people went out in the evening, which lead to a certain amount of vandalism, cross-dressing and practical joking.  The jokesters lit their way by carrying hollowed out/carved turnips (or mangel wurzels) which were, called variously "punkies" or "jack o'lanterns".  When the Irish migrated to the United States, they took their traditions with them and the turnip was discarded in favour of the pumpkin.  The Irish may have brought hollowed out turnips to England, but the Victorian English were also considerably influenced by customs from the United States and thus some of today's festivities bear the hall mark of more recent importation.[5]

At this time of year, Christians cannot avoid pumpkins, broomsticks and requests for sweets, but we can always give answer to those who ask about the hope we have or enquire about our customs. However (or whether) we observe the season of Hallowtide, as the winter draws in, we have a tremendous opportunity to speak about the way in which Jesus lightens our darkness both now and and at the hour of our death.[10] 

[8] I strongly suspect that Roud is following Hutton on this point, given Roud's summary of Samhain seems to almost paraphrase Hutton at this juncture.
[10] The contents of this article owe entirely to Ronald Hutton's excellent book "Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain" and the arguments he mounts against deriving Hallowtide directly from Samhain.

Further Reading:
What to do with Halloween? (article from a moderate Baptist perspective on not judging others)
Who stole Haloween? (reflection on Halloween from an Orthodox perspective)
All Hallows' Eve (comprehensive article from Roman Catholic perspective; contains party ideas - dressing up as saints, red berries and handing out soul cakes)
All Saints and All Souls (another Roman Catholic reflection which seeks to demonstrate Halloween independent of paganism)
What is all Souls day? (reflection on All Souls including info about CS Lewis' belief in purgatory)
Soul Cake - a Shropshire Recipe (Soul cake recipe from Shropshire)