All Hallows

I’m finally starting to get Halloween.

For most of my life, I’ve been mystified by this quasi-holiday, in large part because I’m not naturally wired for it. I don’t believe in ghosts or vampires or immortal killers without faces. I don’t like scary movies or gore. I’ve never looked good in orange, and I detest the smell of pumpkins. Tell me, then, exactly what is there for me in Halloween?

Not much, truth be told. While every year brings some bright spots–fall cookouts, gatherings with friends, free candy–I still have to duck my head and grit my teeth. In a few days, all the ghoulishness will be gone. Even those who love Halloween don’t seem excited to let it linger.


My children playing in the leaf pile. Although parenting teenagers is indeed terrifying, their version of Halloween fun is one I can live with.

Among the litany of baffling things about Halloween is how little we think of what’s on the other side of it. Its name–contracted from Hallows Evening–suggests that we are on the edge of something, but not there yet. Christmas Eve isn’t Christmas. New Year’s Eve isn’t the new year. Hallows Eve isn’t…what?

I’ve known for some time that the real answer is All Saints Day (formerly referred to as All Hallows), a Christian celebration of those who have died and, as the saying goes, joined the church triumphant. Many Christian tribes–including my own– take the first Sunday of November to read the names of those who have died since the last All Saints’ Day and to remember loved ones we have lost at any point in the past. For most of my career, this seemed like a nice and pastorly thing to do.

My feelings have changed since I came to at Dakota Wesleyan. On our first All Saints Day together, my new congregation and I were grieving along parallel paths–I for my friend Jason and they for their associate pastor Brian, both of whom had died far to young the year before. In the coming months, we would hold three more funerals–Hali and Beau, two freshmen students who died nine months apart, and Pam, a beloved professor.

Wisdom may come with age, but so does loss. I’ve talked with countless people in recent years about the deaths of grandparents and siblings, uncles and friends, classmates and neighbors. My father died in February and was incapacitated long before his heart stopped beating. I have friends with cancer, with diabetes, with dementia. I found out last night that the mother of two of my college classmates–a delightful woman who treated Susan and Nancy’s friends as her own kids–is preparing to enter hospice care.

I’ve decided that I’ll never quite get over most of these losses–that most of us don’t, and that’s okay. They remain part of my life’s canvas, and even though they take up less of the picture as the years go by, they will never quite go away.

All Saints Day gives me a chance–more than that, a mandate–to remember. It reminds me of my faith’s hope that a person who dies is not lost, but welcomed into the hands of God. It allows me to grieve, but leaves no room for despair.

So today I am in full Halloween-be-damned mode. The fascination with ghosts and monsters and unrequited suffering misses the point. Today I’m living in remembrance, and in anticipation. The two are not so far apart as I once supposed.


Night Things, and Saints

You can survive being that vulnerable. I think it is at the heart of being human, sorrow and sadness. It’s certainly an essential component of loving. If you don’t want to cry, then don’t love anything.”  –David Saetre, campus minister, quoted in The End of Night by Paul Bogard.

For years, Halloween has easily been my least favorite holiday. I don’t say that as some in my tribe do, with spiritual condescension toward those who celebrate it. For me, it’s just a matter of personal preference. I don’t like being scared or startled. I don’t like gore. I think zombies are interesting only as metaphors, not as costumes. Generally, I just don’t participate, lest I become the Grinch who stole Halloween.

But for the first time in my life, I’m gazing at this Halloween with an eye toward the other side of it. Most of us know that the word Halloween means “all hallows eve,” but we associate that only with ghosts. In fact, however, All Hallows Day is a Christian festival that has been celebrated for a millennium and a half to honor all the saints. In my tradition, that term is applied to all who have died in Christ, particularly those who have joined the church triumphant in the previous year. Like many others, I will be standing in honor of a friend this year when that part of the service comes around.

As I was reading Paul Bogard’s book on the need to preserve darkness, I came across the above quote. The pastor he references says that he spends his time signaling toward the divine, but also reminding people not to pass too lightly through the times of doubt and struggle. After all, the rhythm of our world is darkness and light, darkness and light. Both together are necessary for our health.

I won’t be wearing a goofy costume or watching slasher movies this Halloween. But I think I will be contemplating the necessity of darkness, the need to be still, the promise of resurrection. During our All Saints celebration, I will try not to cry in church, but if I do it’s not because of despair. It’s because both love and loss are the very fabric of human experience, part of our souls’ rhythm. Light and darkness, but always hope.