THE HISTORY OF HALLOWEEN
Halloween has a murky history. It probably began as an ancient Celtic festival called “Samhain” where people in Ireland, Britain, and northern France celebrated their new year on November 1st. They believed that on the last day of the year, the dead would haunt the living, and so they’d put food and wine out to appease the spirits. If they had to travel, they’d wear a mask to fool the ghosts. Pretty spooky!
The name “Halloween” is easier to track: it comes from the church holiday, “All Hallow’s Day” (All Saints’ Day), which celebrated all the Christians who’d gone to heaven. In the ninth century, it was moved to November 1st. Like many other church holidays (think Christmas Eve!), people would have a service the night before, and that came to be known as All Hallows’ Eve. The Scots called it Hallowe’en, and the name stuck.
Fancy-dress and all the costumes came much later, in the seventeenth century. Young people would dress up and go house to house, trading songs, poems, and jokes for treats. Irish and Scottish immigrants brought this to America, where it became popular in the late nineteenth century, and really caught on from the 1940’s onwards.
A GERMAN HALLOWEEN STORY
Thunder rolled and lightning licked the ground with its sharp sparks in the dead of night while Martin, a young law student ran for his life. It was July, 1505. He had been travelling, but now, all he wanted was to go home. It was summer. Storms like this weren’t supposed to happen. The ground shook and lightening struck just near to where he stood! Martin was terrified. He promised God that if he lived, he would quit his law degree and become a monk.
The storm passed, and Martin became a monk, just as he had promised. His day began at 2:00AM. He had prayers, songs, and chores. Life as a monk was hard, but meaningful. All the other monks seemed to be happy. But there was a deep feeling of uneasiness in Martin. He could feel something was horribly, horribly wrong. Martin knew that he’d made mistakes. “Just confess them,” said the other monks, “and God will forgive you. But be sure not to forget anything!” Martin started to worry that he’d left something out. He started confessing everything he could think of, up to five hours at a time! He began to be an even better monk than any of the other monks. He tried harder and harder to be perfect. He began to get on the other monks’ nerves.
“Martin needs a holiday,” they said. They chose him to deliver an important letter to the pope in Rome. “That will be a change of scenery, and cheer him up!”
They thought Martin would be inspired and encouraged, but he came home even more angry and afraid. He didn’t enjoy his travels. No one could give him peace. It was the dark ages. For hundreds of years, the church had stopped teaching the gospel. All Martin heard again and again was how he had to beat the darkness in his life, all on his own, with his own hard work. He was afraid of death. What if he wasn’t good enough for heaven? He knew he couldn’t get things right on his own. He felt more and more pressure every day, and every day, he was more and more afraid. It was as if the devil himself whispered in his ear, “not good enough,” again and again and again.
Everything boiled over one Halloween evening, just over five hundred years ago. In the darkness of October 31st, 1517, a hollow knocking could be heard at the church door. It rang out through the village. People peered out of windows to see who it could be. They saw a dark, hooded figure, hitting the door with a hammer, again and again and again, nailing a long scrap of paper to the thick wooden beams.
It was Martin, long before the days of trick-or-treating. He had written ninety-five challenges to what he had been taught and nailed them to the church door in the night. Martin had seen the light in the darkness. One night, he had been reading his Bible, and he realised that he’d been deceived. He’d been taught that he had to beat the evil and darkness himself. But it wasn’t true! Martin just had to believe in Christ, God himself, who at Golgotha, “the place of the skull,” had faced wickedness, death, and the devil himself, and had defeated it all, and he would be saved.
So he did. Martin knelt and prayed and asked God to save him, and at once he felt a weight off his shoulders. He was no longer afraid. His ninety-five challenges shook the church – and the world. The printing press was new, and someone copied Martin’s list and shared it further than any other book ever had been. Martin had begun a movement called the Reformation that left the dark ages behind. The Reformation encouraged freedom and joy because of Christ’s victory over evil, for everyone who believed. The motto of the Reformation was post tenebras lux: after darkness, light.
Because he knew that Christ had beaten wickedness, death, and the devil, Martin was filled with courage. He’d been afraid in the past, but now he mocked the devil mercilessly. And every Halloween, we make fun of evil, because we know it’s defeated. Martin knew that Christ had beaten the devil, and he was no longer afraid. He lived with courage, joy, and peace for the rest of his life. And so can you.