All Hallow's Eve: A Concise History of Halloween & Its Cosmic Significance

Feast of the Martyrs Zenobius & Zenobia

Pumpkin_Pantokrator_Square.jpegIN THE MIDDLE Ages, Halloween was known as All Hallow’s Eve. Though today a festival to celebrate the creepy, carnal, and calamitous, historically it was the vigil for All Saints Day (also called All Hallows). On All Hallow’s Eve, the local parish church would hold a vigil and then process to the local cemetery to offer prayers on behalf of the departed. On the following day of obligation, the Church would triumph in the saints, famous and obscure, who have participated in Christ’s victory over death and now reign with him, above all our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary. The day which completes Allhallowtide—All Souls Day—is another day of prayer for the souls in purgatory, that they may join the joy and glory of the saints in their heavenly splendor.

It is precisely this defeat of Satan, Death, and Hell which gives Halloween its distinctively mysterious and spooky imagery, rather than their celebration: by dressing up as demons, ghouls, goblins, and ghosts, the Christian faithful parody those powers which once enslaved the human race, but now are subservient to Jesus Christ, the Messianic Conqueror and Imperial Lord of the universe. Halloween ought to be a time for Christians to contemplate the reality of Death, to remember its former rule and to celebrate its defeat, as well as for Christians to contemplate the mysteries of our inhabited cosmos. Halloween, properly speaking, reminds us of two different realms of the cosmos: the demonic, which is vanquished, and the elvish, that not quite human, not quite angelic, rational creation, which to the minds of many medieval people existed alongside our own world in ways less and less immediately perceptible.

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The cosmological journey Halloween inspires us to—still evident in modern media like the justly popular Stranger Things—begins with a descent into Hades, climaxes in an ascent to heaven, and ends with a remembrance of those who have departed already on this odyssey, and petitions that they would be assisted in the trials of their final pilgrimage. In this sense, Allhallowtide is a time for reflection on both the horizontal and the vertical dimensions of the world God has made and our attempt to place ourselves in it, both in this life and the next. Indeed, the cosmic adventure of Allhallowtide is nothing less than a memory of our mortality, of our potential in Christ, and of the arduous road that we must walk to find ourselves there, and everything we may encounter along the way. In this sense, cosmology is an inner journey of the soul, and we ought not to expect anything less, since, as the Fathers teach us, the human being is a miniature image of the cosmos. This is the mystical intuition inherent in Halloween, correct though misdirected toward magic natural and demonic: the quest to know the self and the self’s place in the universe, in the cosmic hierarchy of praise and participation in the glory of God.

David Armstrong is an Orthodox Christian who enjoys a shameless love affair with Jews, Judaism, and other Christians. He graduated with a BA in Religious Studies (minor in Classical Greek) from Missouri State University in Springfield, MO, where he is now working on an MA in Biblical Studies. He has an avid interest in far too many things, and would do well to specialize.

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