This night is known in popular culture as Halloween, a time of witches, pumpkins, hobgoblins and ghosts. It is a popular and highly commercialised holiday in America, imported long ago from Ireland. The old pagan festival was Samhain, or Souin, which marked the ending of the old year and the start of a new year in the majority of ancient Celtic societies. It was a time for looking back at the blessings of summer and looking forward in preparation for what could well be a harsh winter. Livestock on the farm was brought in and those that could not be housed were slaughtered and preserved, crops were conserved as well as possible, and what could not be kept was eaten in feasting. The remains were burned in the many ‘bone fires’ or bonfires of the early days of November.
The old belief was that there was danger and vulnerability at this time of transition, which was neither in one year nor the next. Spiritual barriers could be dissolved. Inevitably, looking back led to the remembrance of those who had died and gone before; and, as the dark, cold days were awaited, protection was sought against the evil spirits that were bound to be abroad until spring returned. These old beliefs were never quite eradicated by the coming of Christianity, but lingered as a persistent superstition, a residual folk memory.
For Christian Celts the real festival is All Hallows and All Saints, days of remembering in thankfulness ‘all the saints who from their labours rest’, and of seeking protection and provision from the Almighty God who created and sustains His people. It is also a reminder that we are one with all those who have gone before in the faith of Christ, and that their presence in some way still encourages us on our faith journeys today.
On All Hallows Eve, why not light a large candle and gather round to say Compline? The candle could be left shining (in a safe way!) in a window, as a witness to the world outside. Or perhaps on All Saints’ Day plan to recall the martyrs of the faith with ‘Light a candle in the darkness’ (Celtic Daily Prayer p. 244).
Great God of bounty and provider in lean times, protector from evil and hope of new light and life, we thank you for all those who before us have believed in the Lord Jesus Christ and walked in His ways. We praise you that with them we are part of the fellowship of all saints, past and present. Teach us to follow their examples of faithfulness and service, and to trust You through all the dark, cold days to bring us through to light and new life. In the name of the One who transforms all life, Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen.