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Happy Allhallowtide!

That’s one of the formal names for this season in which the church remembers and honors the dead, made up traditionally of the three days of All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween), All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day (Dia de los Muertos in some cultures).  If you google any of these you can read up on all the complicated history, culture, and theology of these days.

What’s at the core of this period is a remembrance of those who have died.  In our congregation we use the Sunday closest to All Saints, usually the first Sunday in November, to remember all of our members who have died in the last year.  Back in 2021, because we had not had funerals for so many folks during Covid, we dispensed with a sermon and spent the entire service remembering those who had died.  That service received such good feedback, and we ministers felt so good about it, we’ve adopted that same pattern for worship in the two subsequent years.

Halloween itself is constantly evolving.  Once merely the vigil ahead of the commemoration of All Saints, it has taken on significant importance in secular culture and now seems to be an entire month of celebrations that some call “Spooky Season.”  There are probably connections to pre-Christian pagan celebrations like the Gaelic Samhain, and the day has accumulated symbols and connections that weren’t originally tied to these particular holy days and observances.  Sources I read do indicate that our modern Halloween is rooted in Scottish and Irish celebrations that immigrants brought to America where the holiday developed in the 19th and 20th centuries and now has become a worldwide event.  In my own lifetime it has been interesting to watch how one night of children’s fun has turned into a longer season and something that adults celebrate as much as kids.  Long before other adults had embraced Halloween, gay communities had, making it one of the biggest nights for gay clubs and parties (for example, a gay minister friend today texted me “Happy Gay Christmas!”).  When I lived in Dallas the gayborhood had massive Halloween celebrations that were family-friendly before sunset and less so afterwards.  Clearly Halloween has taken on some of the culture of Carnival and the old medieval ideas of one day of topsy-turvy misrule and foolishness.

The connection of horror with all of this is much more recent, though clearly a season devoted to remembering the dead is not unrelated to our folk and pop ideas of monsters and such.  The October 2023 issue of The Christian Century did a wonderful job of exploring the ways that faith and horror are connected.  I particularly recommend the essay about the monsters of the Bible.

All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days at one time (and in some denominations and cultures still do) mark two separate celebrations–one for the acknowledged saints of the church and one for all the departed.  We Protestants don’t generally make such distinctions.  And in America the liturgical observance in November runs up against the secular remembrance of the dead that occurs on Memorial/Decoration Day (a day that also has evolved over time and has been observed differently in different parts of the country).

More and more Americans are also observing Dia de los Muertosor, at least, incorporating its images and themes into our celebrations of this whole season.  Of course popular culture has much to do with this, especially the wonderful Disney film Coco.  Many non-Spanish-speaking and non-religious Americans now set up ofrendas in their homes to remember their dead.  We’ve done it a few times here at church too.  Stephen Bouma pointed out that because of Coco, these images are very familiar and common for most children these days.

So, this whole season is a fascinating amalgam of different spiritual, theological, cultural, ethnic, and historical sources.  And the ways in which it opens up, often through fun and thrills, a chance to connect with topics that are otherwise difficult and painful, I think is healthy.

Happy Allhallowtide!

P. S. If you want to read some good theology on the communion of the saints, I recommend the chapter “The Community of the Living and the Dead” in Jurgen Moltmann’s In the End the Beginning: The Life of Hope and the chapter “Learning from the Past: The Role of the Ancestors” in Monica Coleman’s Making a Way Out of No Way: A Womanist Theology.


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