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Children ‘trick or treating’ on Halloween may not realise that they are the opening part of a medieval festival to honour the dead. All Hallows’ Eve falls on 31st October each year, the day before All Hallows’ Day (or All Saints’ Day) in the Christian calendar. A hallow is a saint or holy person and it’s when Christians remember saints and martyrs throughout history. All Souls’ Day is a chance to commemorate anyone special to us who has died which we will mark on 5th November. We begin by celebrating with All Saints’ Day on 30th October with a benefice communion at All Saints – a great opportunity for the whole benefice to worship together.
All Hallows’ Eve was a time of prayer and fasting – so where does ‘trick or treating’ come from? All Hallows and All Souls probably displaced an even older Celtic festival called Samhain – Christian missionaries liked to do that. Samhain (pronounced sow-in) is Gaelic and means ‘end of the summer’. It may have marked the time when the harvest was complete and winter preparations began. Sometimes people disguised themselves in costumes made of animal skins to drive away phantom visitors, and food was left out on tables to placate unwelcome spirits.
It seems the church replaced a celebration of the land as a source of food with festivals to honour the dead. Jesus said the most important things we can do are to love God and love our neighbour. So, like all Christian feasts, All Saints and All Souls are expressions of love. Nevertheless, it’s possible that medieval farming communities, while embracing the new, hedged their bets and never completely forgot ancient rituals to honour the earth on which they depended.