Halloween is how “All Hallows Eve” is now pronounced. And, as with the term, the meaning and narrative for the day (and especially the night) have evolved. October 31 began to be Halloween in Europe when the Church imposed All Saints Day (November 1) and All Souls Day (November 2) on pagan days that were concerned with annual migrations of ghosts and demons, about which Europe was fixated. The Middle Ages specialized in fantasy narratives that coalesced their fear of death. Defeating the Devil and his evil minions was a theme in a wide variety of religious rituals and less-religious popular arts and entertainments. Major Christian festivals are preceded with a day or a season of preparation, hence, the evening before All Hallows (Saints). But the people could not be prevented from remembering what it had all once been about: witches and worse flying to cavort with Satan and his henchmen.
Halloween has now been domesticated for the most part. The Church did not come out right away to actively suppress the lighting of bonfires to divert the evil migration or the other attempts to placate the ghosts of largely anonymous ancestors. That came later. But it was a combination of the Enlightenment and natural psychological forces that transformed the year’s most frightful night into one of the most playful. People usually do away with that which terrifies them by laughing it away, as soon as they can. [I posted a more thorough blog about this in 2014: http://www.kendobson.asia/blog/ghosts ]
In Alton, Illinois (the last town in the USA in which I resided (1987-94) before returning to Thailand) the Halloween Parade was one of the town’s largest community events. It was all about dressing up, showing off, being proud, having fun, collecting memories, and all the things that community parades do. It was big. This year will be the 104th Halloween Parade in Alton, although the excitement is fading anyway as the town slowly declines. We’ll see what happens as America pretends COVID is over.
Ironically, it was another epidemic, the Black Plague that energized All Hallows Eve. Something had to be behind those repeated waves of death. They had to be personified in order to be handled. The persons who were targeted were witches and wizards. They were rounded up and killed by the thousands. The attempt was to wipe them out. It was ethnic cleansing, except that it lacked clear definitions of terms and was hysterically indiscriminate.
The difference between those times and now is obvious. COVID is no longer blamed on witches, but there is a prolonged effort to blame somebody. It depends on which conspiracy theory you buy. Witches, of course, are off the hook, for the most part. Witches are now in a safe section of our cultural literature, safe even for children, safe for theme parks. Witches are safe for Halloween trick-or-treating except you need to plan and regulate that now because, well, there are still “bad people out there”.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.