All Hallow’s Eve: Mummers, Martyrs, and Memory

October 29, 2023

Since Halloween is just around the corner and there are all sorts of Christian hang-ups about this time of year, I thought I’d share some thoughts about it this morning.  First, let me read a couple of posts that have been circulating on Facebook:

It’s pretty hard to argue with Halloween if that’s the spirit we share.  There are other aspects to the holiday that concern some of us but mostly, it’s a pretty good time.  Halloween, of course, comes from All Hallow’s Eve, also known as the eve of All Saints’ Day.  Since the early Middle Ages Christians have taken time out to remember, pray for and celebrate the lives of the martyrs and saints of the church.  There were just too many of them to be able to give each saint their own day.   For some, this feast day was on May 13th; for others it was November 1st.  It wasn’t until the late Medieval period that for most of the church the day to remember the saints became designated as November 1st.  Of course, with the Protestant Reformation beginning in the 1500s  – which is also celebrated this time of year! – , many denominations dispensed with Saints’ Days altogether. Slowly though, these celebrations have crept back into the Protestant church –because they meet a need that may otherwise not be addressed in our worship and our day to day living.

First of all, we need to remember the reality of death as a part of life, and to pause and pray for those who are grieving and pray a blessing on those who have died.  This is the origin of All Souls’ Day, which happens the day after All Saints. The Psalm today reminds us how fleeting life is – even for those of us who live into our hundreds like Moses did in the other reading.  Life can be very hard sometimes and too often we lose people too early.  For some relationships, any loss at any age, feels too early, and the grief can be very strong.  We need to pray through those emotions, as the Psalmist and the people of Israel did.  We tend to cut off our mourning, pressured to get on with life and not “inconvenience” others with our grief.  We are afraid of death, so we avoid it, and the feeling that surround it.  At this time of year, we acknowledge its reality, and bring that reality into worship and prayer.

For Roman Catholics, All Souls is a day to pray for the souls of the dead, especially those who are stuck in Purgatory.  Most Protestants these days don’t believe we need to pray folk out of some middle ground between heaven and hell.  While some believe in a literal heaven and hell, many of us believe that God’s mercy redeems us and welcomes us home without some sort of “holding period”.  Still, to remember the dead and pray for them is to honour them and to give thanks for their lives.  Just as Indigenous folk, Asian or Latinx folk have traditions to honour their ancestors, so do those of the European countries that first formed the Protestant churches; while many of those traditions were at one time suppressed by the church, they have trickled down in many ways, including at this time of year.

In addition to honouring the dead we have known personally -our own families, our own mentors and heroes – we honour other saints as well – saints like the great prophet and leader Moses, like Mary, mother of Jesus,  or any of the other saints we have considered over the summer and fall. We also honour traditional Roman Catholic saints who have become popularly known, like St Patrick, St Francis of Assisi, St Valentine, St Christopher, or St Bernadette.   There are the angels like Michael , Uriel and Raphael; there are the Christian martyrs like Saint Perpetua and St Sebastia,, there are the mystics like St Theresa of Avila, and the scholars like St Thomas Aquinas. And of course, there are the people who inspire our faith and our living: the parents, friends, teachers, coaches, leaders, ministers, musicians, and more from whom we’ve learned about Jesus, about compassion, about mercy, about justice and peace.  Living or dead, it is worth remembering them in these feasts of All Saints and All Souls.

So you’ll see that the end of October and the beginning of November combines the remembrance of all who have died with a special regard for those who have lived particularly faithful lives.  I love how the passage in Deuteronomy describes Moses.  For all his flaws –which were many, according to the stories! – the Bible says “Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom YHWH knew face to face.”  Whether our saints are extraordinary like Moses, or seemingly ordinary, like your youth group leader or Sunday School teacher, they are worth remembering.  I remember the year that the famous American lawyer and judge Ruth Bader Ginsberg, passed away – hundreds of little girls dressed up as RBG for Halloween! Compared to some of the costumes I saw at the Halloween store this week, that’s pretty inspiring.

Another aspect of All Hallows Eve which is represented in many of our Halloween customs is the whole notion of “laughing at the devil” – in other words, robbing fear and evil of its power by making fun of it!  The pagan belief in evil deities, demons and spirits has also been part of Christianity in its various forms.  Mark’s Gospel in particular depicst Jesus as constantly battling against evil spirits, representing the powers and systems that hold us captive even today.  Even now here are people who live in fear of such entities and seek ways to banish them from their lives.  Just go to your local “spiritual but no religious” air and you’ll see it everywhere. The need to laugh at the fear and make light of it is  the origin of some of those scary costumes we see – from the mummers of the Middle Ages, to the zombies and vampires and Freddy Kruger lookalikes we see today. If you can buy it in a store or sew it up at home, it’s not so scary anymore!  Other costume traditions come from the idea that if you dress up as someone or something other than yourself, spirits won’t recognize you and you will not be troubled.

Some Christians really fear the occult aspects of Halloween, and there is some reason for that.  Instead of mocking evil there will always be some who celebrate it instead.  As I walked through the Spirit of Halloween this week, I couldn’t help thinking that there is something in us that loves the shadow, the curse, the monster under the bed.

But most of us just have good fun on Halloween, and as the memes quoted earlier suggest, it is a time of great generosity and kindness for the majority.  While it can be a bit over the top, with greed and waste sometimes overtaking the good fun, it can also be a time of community building and neighbourliness – something we really need these days.

So, what might next week look like for you and your family?

Perhaps you will be handing out treats.  If you are, take a moment to speak to the kids and their parents – see if you can find out who they are and connect with them.

Perhaps you will be trick or treating. If you are, I’d invite you to visit the homes in your own neighbourhood before or after going to the mall or the fire station.  Visit your neighbours and introduce yourselves as you trick or treat. Say a kind word to them and to the others you meet.  You might consider taking donations for the Food Bank – you’ll need a wagon or a cart if you do! – or perhaps you could be part of the UNICEF Halloween walkathon – the latest version of those little cardboard coin boxes we used to carry with us when I was a child.  You’re going to be walking anyway Halloween night – why not raise some money while you do it?

If you’re hosting a party, perhaps you could take up a collection for a cause you believe in – especially one related to hunger.  Or get your friends together and invite them to donate a certain portion of what they spent on their Halloween costume that year.  Spread the fun and spread the food around!

The day after Halloween, when you are sorting candy or eating leftover potato chips, take a moment to remember your saints and your departed loved ones, and say thank-you.  Light a candle, place a new plant near a beloved photograph, write a letter to a living saint, send a card to someone who is grieving, remember both the sadness of saying goodbye and the blessing these folks were in your life.

Let’s amplify the generosity and balance all the fake blood and scary bits with real connection so that the spirit of Halloween is not one of shadows and fear but of kindness and remembrance.  Mummers – and mummies! – martyrs, mourning and memories – all have their place this time of year.  May you have a blessed and safe Halloween.  Amen.




Sermons are primarily meant to be preached, not read, so the content of any sermon may not be exactly as written. If you wish to share these sermons with others in print or on the internet please contact Rev. Heidi for permission.