I love reading scary, spooky Halloween stories to children at this time of year, but I am always surprised at the number of students who are completely unaware of the roots of this holiday, and even of the derivation of the word itself. At a recent school visit, in answer to my question about the meaning of hallow, the only child who raised his hand to answer, said, “empty,” obviously confusing it with hollow. I suppose that is not at all surprising, given the number of people in the media who pronounce it “Holloween.”
Ever since I came to America, I find that some teachers and parents are somewhat wary of focusing, or even of acknowledging the ghoulish aspect of this holiday, while some go so far as to maintain that it is at odds with the Christian Faith.
However, I think it provides a wonderful opportunity to talk to children about the whole notion of good versus evil. Here is what I tell the children before I launch into my stack of spooky stories.
Halloween means Holy Evening from the old English “hallow” (holy) and “een” (a contraction of eve or evening). Of course, as most people know (or at least I think they do), this holiday has its roots in the ancient Celtic/Druid/ belief that this was the time of year when evil spirits roamed the earth. In order to keep the dark forces at bay, people dressed up in costumes to “fool” the wandering souls. With the advent of Christianity, the Celts still retained many of their ancient rituals (jack-o-lantern to ward off the evil spirits, dressing up in costumes and going from house to house–guising) and simply blended them into their new found Christian practices–going to Mass to celebrate the lives of the Saints and offering up special prayers for the dead. Incidentally, the reason St. Patrick was so successful at bringing Christianity to Ireland, was that the Celtic people were already completely attuned to the idea of “other worlds”–Heaven and Hell–because they already believed in the “little people,” and they already knew that often times that which you cannot see is actually more real than what you can see.
On this Hallowed night then, I think it is good to read a ghost story or two, because the next day on the glorious feast of All Saints (one of my favorite holy days), I know that I will say a special prayer to all those “big” saints like Patrick and Joseph, Teresa and Bridget who filled this world with their goodness and grace and light. And I will pray also to all those “little” saints–all those holy men and women who have touched my life with their particular goodness, grace, and light: my mum and my dad, all my dear Irish aunties and uncles, and even those wonderful writers, like C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, and Thomas Merton, whose words continue to feed and nourish me.
To miss this opportunity of sharing with children that we know without a shadow of a doubt that goodness and grace will always trump the forces of evil and darkness, would indeed make this a very “hollow” festival! So, light the lanterns, tell the spooky tales, don the wizards’ robes and witches’ hats, and have a Happy HALLOW–EEN!