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Oct. 31 presents us with two holidays rolled into one! Most folks rarely think of Halloween as a time for reflecting and remembering. Concomitantly, "Reformation Day" is not typically perceived as a time to dress in costume, carve pumpkins and hand out candy. There is something for everyone in this curious juxtaposition of religious history and tradition and secular customs.
Let's sort it out. A special feast day, celebrated for centuries on Nov. 1 in the western churches, was called "All Saint's Day." This feast was designed to commemorate saints alive and dead, giving thanks for spiritual forebears who kept the faith and who bequeathed a legacy of moral values and sacred traditions. In medieval England, the day was known as "All Hallows." The previous evening, October 31, was, of course, "All Hallow's Eve."
It just so happens that ancient Celts had celebrated the end of summer on Oct. 31. Their great fire festivals were intended to frighten away evil spirits. With time, this custom took on more sinister significance with ghosts, witches, goblins, black cats, fairies and demons said to be roaming about.
These pagan observances exerted considerable influence on the festival of All Hallow's Eve. Medieval superstitions held that the recognition of departed saints was preceded by the appearance of evil spirits. Consequently, certain practices (dressing in costume, lighting lanterns, carving scary faces in turnips or pumpkins in the New World) were enacted to keep at bay these undesirable specters.
Gradually, "Halloween" became a secular observance. Popularized in 19th century America, the event was accompanied by pranks and mischief making. Eventually, the custom became one of children going from house to house, often in costume, demanding "trick or treat."
But wait, there is more! Oct. 31 is also the anniversary of the day that Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany, in 1517. This is the traditional date for the beginning of the Reformation. Luther deplored what he perceived to be theological and social abuses in the Catholic Church. He came to the conclusion that Scripture alone is authoritative and that justification before God is obtained by faith, not by works. Rejecting a complex ecclesiastical system of indulgences in the church, he set out to bring about reform.
A confrontation with the church hierarchy was inevitable, however, and Luther was eventually excommunicated for his radical ideas. Instead of Catholic reform, the result was rebellion against the Church and fracture among adherents of Christianity, out of which was born the Protestant Reformation. This date, then, offers a surprising variety of ways to celebrate! For excited, imaginative little ones, it is a grand time to play dress up!
For those who spurn Halloween because it caricatures demons and makes light of evil, this is a good time to talk with your kids about things they really should fear in this broken world. It is also a good time to teach them how to discern between good and evil and where they may find genuine hope.
This week provides a moment to celebrate the saints in your life. It's a good time to send a note to those who have blessed you, expressing gratitude to the encouragers and important life teachers along the way.
Perhaps this is a good time to act like a "saint!" Remembering that holidays are not always about getting something, this is a good time to think about how your actions affect others. Look for a way to lift up someone nearby.
This is a great time to give thanks for people who have dared to think for themselves and act on convictions. Who made sacrifices, worked hard, and stayed true to what was right and good on your behalf? Consider whether or not this is the legacy you are handing to your children. Oct. 31and Nov. 1, these are pretty good days with which to begin a holiday season in which we in turn give thanks, give gifts and make resolutions!