Hallowe’en may be second only to Christmas as a popular and commercially lucrative holiday here in America. We are all familiar with the children (of ALL ages) going trick-or-treating throughout their neighborhood, and quite often many other neighborhoods. Since the “treats” are almost always candy and other sweets, the holiday could be a favorite of dentists since it provides them with more and more patients. There are whole sections of stores, and even specialty Hallowe’en stores, selling costumes, masks, plastic pumpkins, and other paraphernalia.
The theme of Hallowe’en, of course is death, and perhaps what comes after. The name is an abbreviation of “All Hallows Eve” the night before All Saints Day, “hallows” or “hallowed” being an archaic word for holy or saints. All Saints Day is traditionally celebrated on November 1, with All Souls Day coming the day after on the 2nd. The three days together are known in Western Christianity, as “Allhallowstide.” Their observance has been important in English and Celtic tradition. Here in North America, these days are associated with the Mexican festival known as Dia de Muertos (sometimes incorrectly rendered as “El Dia de los Muertos“) — The Day of the Dead. Dia de Muertos had its origin in pre-Columbian pagan times, originally at the summer solstice. It fell neatly in with the Christian tradition, especially the Roman Catholic version. Like so many folk traditions, the festival was incorporated into the Christian Church’s ritual. At some point it was moved to coincide with Allhallowstide.
The religious purpose of these days is to remember, honor, and perhaps commune with the deceased. It includes prayer for those languishing in purgatory—who fast in fires until the foul deeds done in their days of nature are burnt and purged away—to be released. Many Protestant Christians eliminate the prayer because, not believing in purgatory and that final judgment is rendered at the time of death, there is no purpose in praying for those departed.
The evening of the first day, Hallowe’en, is when the evil spirits are ascendant, appear among the living and might be placated by giving them gifts. Witches, supposedly human agents of Satan, are out in force seeking to assist in claiming souls for the devil. Their brief nightly reign ends with the dawn and resurrection of the saints.
The Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky drew on a similar, Slavic legend of the evil master Chernobog, who arises on St. John’s Eve, the day before the summer solstice. This creature wreaks his mischief throughout the night on Bald Mountain, where his minions are released from hell to prey on the villagers and spirits arise from their graves. Chernobog’s reign ends at dawn with the tolling of church bells. Mussorgsky’s tone poem “Night on Bald Mountain” was popularized in Walt Disney’s feature-length Fantasia. Like the Mexican tradition, Chernobog’s antics were moved to the time of Allhallowstide, and are now associated with Hallowe’en. Credit Disney with that effect.