[HEUNGBO'S GOURD]Halloween: pagans versus saints

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[HEUNGBO'S GOURD]Halloween: pagans versus saints

When it comes to having fun, it seems that the forces of Christianity are unable to win out against the forces of paganism and secularism. Halloween is a case in point. Halloween is supposed to be the eve of All Saints Day, formerly called All Hallows Day or Hallowmas, but how many people do you think will follow up their evening of trick-or-treating and masqueraded nighttime deviltry with a visit to church the next morning? Darn few, you can bet.

Though you do see boxes of candy decorated with black-and-orange Halloween designs on sale here and there in Seoul, Koreans can't really be expected to know much about the day since it's not part of their culture. But even in North America few people are aware that Halloween has anything to do with All Saints Day. They don't even know that it contains the word "hallow," judging from the fact that they pronounce it "Holloween." Maybe they believe it means something like "day totally devoid of meaning" or "day to keep your belly hollow so you'll have plenty of room for the goodies you beg off your neighbors" or possibly "day you hollow out pumpkin shells to make jack-o'-lanterns."

It's little wonder that this should be so. Those of us who as kids were dragged off to church on All Saints Day know from direct experience that the eve of Hallowmas is a lot more fun than Hallowmas itself, and we envied our playmates whose families didn't go to church or went to churches that didn't celebrate All Saints Day. (Some of my high-school classmates and I contemplated converting to Judaism until a Jewish friend of ours told us that synagogue was even more boring than church and they didn't even have pipe organs or sing Handel's "Messiah.")

So Hallowmas has turned out to be a big flop, commercially speaking, while the pagan goings-on of the day before have spurred the mask and pumpkin markets on to big sales. It's another example of the failure of Christian holy days to catch on amid the more mundane attractions of secular life and in the face of competition by pagan festivities that are more fun.

Look at what's happened to all the old "-mas" holidays. Hardly anybody remembers that Feb. 2 is Candlemas, the celebration of the presentaton of Christ at the temple and of the purification of His mother; everyone knows it as Groundhog Day, when the groundhog comes out of his hole and decides whether we're going to have a long winter or not.

How many young people today have heard of Lammas, the Aug. 1 harvest festival when the bread used as hosts in the Eucharist was baked with flour made from newly harvested grain? And while millions of people know that Elvis Presley's birthday is Jan. 8, not many know that Michaelmas (that's "Micklemas," the feast of the archangel) falls on Sept. 29 or Martinmas (celebrating the patron saint of France) on Nov. 11. The only "-mas" day left is Christmas, and it's the most secularized Christian holiday of all.

The Christians have no one to blame but themselves. They have consistently tried to take over pagan celebrations instead of being sensible and assigning their holidays to dates that didn't compete with razzmatazzier heathen functions. The history of All Hallows Day illustrates this Christian foible.

In 609 or 610, Pope Boniface IV took a pagan temple dedicated to all the gods, the Pantheon in Rome, and converted it into a church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin and all the sainted martyrs. Then he declared May 13 to be All Saints Day. Now this is right at the tail end of the old Roman May Day fertility celebrations. So there everybody was, in a pagan temple, trying to be devout to all the saints while they were still hung over from nearly two weeks of revelry.

Clearly, the May 13 date hadn't worked out, for in 837 Pope Gregory IV changed it to Nov. 1. This was another mistake, because this was the date on which the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon New Year's Day fell. On New Year's Eve they would build bonfires to drive away evil spirits, consult devils to divine the best dates in the coming year for weddings and such, and perform all manner of sorcery designed to foil the evildoings of the warlocks and black witches who were said to be abroad that night.

These and many other New Year's Eve customs lived on as Halloween and were brought to North America, mostly by Irish and Scottish immigrants, where they eventually completely overshadowed All Saints Day.

Well, that's what you get for tackling those fun-loving heathens. Boniface should have found a nice empty lot on which to build his all-martyrs' church and should have assigned All Saints Day to a part of the year when people didn't have anything better to do.


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The writer is a columnist of the JoongAng Daily. His e-mail address is gary@korelore.com.

by Gary Rector

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