What are you going to be for Halloween? Most kids will ask this of one another this October as we get closer the end of the month. Dressing up as a favorite character or scary figure, going out into the dark and receiving lots & lots of candy has become an American tradition and kicks-off the Holiday Season. Did you know that Halloween was once a major Christian holiday and commemorated the entire Church community … the martyrs, the current saints of the Church & the saints that have gone on before us. The Church holiday commemorated the unity of the whole community of the faithful and still sees the Church as the union of all Christian believers, alive and dead.
In the western Church, All Saints Day is celebrated on November 1st. It is a church holiday that honors all of God's saints, even those who have not been canonized by the Church. It is a family day of celebration - we celebrate the memory of those family members (sharing with us in the Mystical Body, the doctrine of the Communion of Saints) now sharing eternal happiness in the presence of God. We rejoice that they have reached their eternal goal and ask for their prayers on our behalf so that we, too, may join them in heaven and praise God through all eternity.
In 844, Pope Gregory IV transferred the feast to November 1st, timing it around the harvests to be able to provide food for Christian pilgrims. Pope Sixtus IV in 1484 established November 1st as a holy day of obligation and gave it both a vigil (known today as "All Hallows' Eve" or "Hallowe'en") and an eight-day period or octave to celebrate the feast. In England, saints or holy people are called "hallowed", hence the name "All Hal-lows’ Day". The evening, or "e'en" before the feast became popularly known as "All Hal-lows' Eve" or even shorter, "Hallowe'en".
Many recipes and traditions have been passed down for this evening, "All Hallows’ Eve" (now known as Halloween), such as pancakes, boxty bread and boxty pancakes, barmbrack (Irish fruit bread with hidden charms) and colcannon (combination of cabbage and boiled potatoes). This was also known as "Nutcrack Night" in England, where the family gathered around the fire to enjoy cider and nuts and apples. In England "soul cakes" are another traditional food. People would go begging for a "soul cake" and promise to pray for the donor's departed friends and family in exchange for the treat, an early version of today's "Trick or Treat."
Lately it seems that Halloween is all year round with comic book super-heroes taking center stage. There are so many shows, toys and video games that include super-heroes. If you haven’t noticed, super-heroes are everywhere. Movies about the Marvel characters are now able to be made with amazing special effects. In my day, we had to ride our bikes to the 7-11 store and buy and trade comic books. This year, we will have many boys and girls dressed as super-heroes knocking on our doors for a treat on Halloween. One interesting thing about many comic super-heroes is that many are humans who poses some kind of amazing power that is used to save the world from evil characters whom plan on destroying or taking over the world. (side note: I don’t want to get into the “Is Batman really a super-hero or just a vigilante debate). The theme of all these movies is “saving the world.” … mmmm…. sound familiar? At St. Sophia summer camp Father Gary and I bring up different Christian t-shirts to wear each day to inspire the kids. I wear one t-shirt with all the marvel super-heroes sitting around Jesus listening to how He truly saved the world. It’s all about saving the world these days! In the comic books, the fight is still going on. In the Bible, we are taught that on the cross of Christ, the battle was won once and for all.
I like to sometimes engage our youth and teach them that the Orthodox Church has its own version of the Super-heroes that we call saints … except these Christian Super-heroes joined up with Jesus to fight against evil and darkness by performing miracles with the power of the Holy Spirit, they were always doing acts of kindness and holiness and stood in face of death and torture while staying true to their beliefs in Jesus Christ. And, they are still interceding today in our lives with the other saints as they surround us in the Divine Liturgy and at different times in our lives. Hebrews 12:1 “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” We, like them are called to stay strong in our struggle and be victorious by the power of the Holy Spirit and our faith in Christ. The saints are all around us, interceding in prayer for us and encouraging us to fight the good fight and stay strong in our faith. Revelations 8:4 “And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel’s hand.”
One saint that is also one of God’s super-heroes is Saint Gerasimos from the Island of Kefalonia. Saint Gerasimos is believed by natives of Kefalonia to protect them from harm and evil, and to also heal them of illness. Many natives of the island name their children after Saint Gerasimos as a tribute to the saint who protects them. The body of Saint Gerasimos is displayed at a monastery in Kefalonia and is still made available for veneration as it has never decomposed. After his death, his body was buried twice and exhumed intact, thus leading the church to ordain him as a saint. Kefalonians throughout the world still revere and pray to him. In 1953, immediately after a powerful earthquake on the island of Kefalonia destroyed 90% of the island, there were many claimed sightings of Saint Gerasimos throughout the island who is believed to have comforted and tended to the injured trapped inside homes and buildings. During the feasts of Saint Gerasimos – August 16th and October 20th (translation of relics) – his body is passed over ill and sick persons for the purpose of healing them. His body is also displayed by the church during liturgy at the monastery on many occasions.
Halloween seems to have veered quite far from its Christian roots here in America. But celebrating the saints as part of our church and interacting with them as part of our faith is still alive and well. The Saints are praying for us, they are the true super-heroes of the Church and are interceding for us to Christ on our behalf. And in cases like St. Gerasimos of Kefalonia, the saints even appear and offer comfort in times of distress as vessels of Christ’s healing power.
Sources: Jennifer Gregory Miller, Catholic Christian Culture, ©2003. Orthodox Wikipedia Encyclopedia, March 2016.
Rev. Fr. Bill Tragus