For November, 2016
To take a break from our usual focus on US English, this post is about a seasonal US Custom: HALLOWEEN
Halloween, a popular American tradition, is upon us. For children it’s all about costumes, candy, and witches. For adults it’s…What is it? Do we know its origin or meaning? Americans tend to retain only the commercial trappings of occasions and forget their provenance.
Halloween is the contracted version of All-Hallows-Evening. “Hallows” (or “shades”) is an Old English term for the soul or supposed essence of dead people, and Halloween was the occasion to remember the dead. October-31is the eve of hallows because Nov 1 is All-Saints Day, and Nov 2 is All-Souls Day, in Christian mythology. (Christians prefer “eschatology,” but there’s no difference.) The Church was serious about Halloween; it’s not clear why the American version is all about scares and horror.
Saints were in heaven; but souls were housed in “Purgatory” to be cleansed of the tarnish of “venial sin” before admission into heaven. In contrast, “mortal sin” could never be remedied: it took you straight to hell. (Infants who died unbaptised stayed permanently in “Limbo.”) So, Purgatory was really a prison for souls: If we prayed enough, or paid enough for priests’ prayers, souls could be paroled to heaven. (That was before Martin Luther denounced the whole corrupt idea of paying earthly cash to Rome to procure miracles in Purgatory!) The Church shut down Purgatory and Limbo recently, as the concept proved too hard to explain; so now, one goes directly to heaven or hell.