A cemetery complete with gravestones is topped by Celtic crosses. Four foot spiders climb the walls of a house. Ghosts, goblins and ghouls hang from trees, windows and lamp posts. Witches are flying through the air. Grinning skeletons beckon unsuspecting children into their grasp. An open coffin adorned with the words, “Rest in Peace” invites a passerby to peek inside.
Outdoor Halloween decorations are over the top in our area. It’s almost bigger than Christmas. A month ago I saw a company deliver and artfully arrange several dozen carved pumpkins and other holiday decorations around the property of a nearby house. Our human fascination with unexplained and otherworldly happenings is not confined to the secular world, however. I served a church once where a ghost was thought to inhabit the building. Her name was Edith. I felt her presence as I walked through the huge building, turning out dozens of lights and locking the doors on Sunday night.
Even John Wesley was thought to have a ghost in his childhood rectory. “Old Jeffrey,” as the Wesley family named the ghost, made his first appearance on December 2, 1716 and tormented their home with mysterious noises and banging. After reports of groans, knockings, stamping and clattering from Samuel and Susanna’s children (ten of their nineteen children lived to maturity), Susanna chalked it off to rodents.
Evidently, the poltergeist’s favorite activity was loud knocking during Samuel’s evening prayers for King George I. John, who was a young teenager at the time and attended Charterhouse School in London, connected the knocking to his mother’s refusal to say amen to Samuel’s prayers for King William fifteen years earlier!
When the ghostly antics continued unabated, Susanna was quoted as saying, “There was such a noise in the room over our heads, as if several people were walking, then running up and down stairs, that we thought the children would be frightened.” As John’s parents tried to track down the ghost, Susanna noted that Old Jeffrey continued “rattling and thundering in every room, and even blowing an invisible horn at deafening decibels.” Susanna began to suspect that perhaps the ghostly appearances were foretelling the death of a close relative. Less than two months later Jeffrey disappeared, never to resurface.
Our contemporary observance of Halloween has long been connected to Christianity, its preoccupation with death inseparable from its religious roots. All Saints Day, November 1, is the day that Christians remember and celebrate the saints of the Church Universal who have died. All Saints Day is also known as All Hallows. October 31, then, is called All Hallows Eve or Even, which was contracted from the Old English into “Halloween.”
For the ancient Celts, November 1 was also the beginning of the new year. October 31, which marked the end of their growing season, was a time when the Celts would pay tribute to the spirit world with gifts of food, insuring that next year’s crop would be bountiful. Huge bonfires were set in order to frighten away evil spirits. The Celts also sought to communicate with the dead and receive wisdom from their ancestors to help secure future prosperity.
As with other holidays, Christians merged new traditions with pagan customs, including the observance of the saints. By the Middle Ages, children would go door to door asking for “soul cakes” for the wandering spirits. If householders refused to offer treats, the children would play pranks. Thus, trick or treat. Of course, for Christians the spirits were not evil but were those of the saints.
As a young child I lived in a small town where my siblings and I had a field day on Halloween. I filled pillow sacks with five cent candy bars that cost a dollar today. As a parent Halloween was fun until my children were old enough to beg for home-made costumes. Without a sewing machine and bereft of creativity, I may have scarred my kids forever as they wore store-bought costumes or cobbled together their own creations. The parental shame over my motherly failures was as fearsome as any goblin.
Kids love Halloween because of the variety of costumes, enticement of candy and excitement of going from home to home. That’s why many churches host Trunk or Treat parties. Children can go from car trunk to car trunk in church parking lots where it is safe and they interact with caring adults.
This past week I heard Bishop Sally Dyck preach about visiting the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. The largest children’s museum in the world, this museum contains the latest technology and innovations in non-traditional learning opportunities for children. Even adults are blown away by the sophistication of the exhibits.
Reflecting on the ingenious ways in which children were invited to interact with the exhibits, Bishop Dyck said, “I became depressed and thought, ‘With museums like this, why would any kid want to go to Sunday school in a United Methodist Church? What do most churches offer that engages children in multi-sensory learning?’”
While discussing the future of seminary education later that morning, we wondered whether our Sunday schools have to be mini children’s museums in order to impact the lives of our children. Are we missing the boat if we’re not on top of the latest methods of teaching Bible stories? Are we depriving our children if we don’t have iPads, biblical video games and highly interactive lesson plans?
Finally someone said, “We really can’t compare a children’s museum with Sunday school because something is missing in the museum. That something is relationship. It’s the connection between teacher and students where the Holy Spirit transforms hearts and minds.” Ultimately, it’s not technology but caring saints who shape the lives of children and all people because Christ’s love shines in them.
I am reminded of my sainted mother, who made my costumes, my sainted Sunday school teacher, Miss Shelley, who taught me about the love of Jesus, and my sainted friend Rosemary, who showed me how to live fully until the end. You and I stand on the shoulders of all the saints who have gone before us: an army of saints guiding us to transcend our divisions, a pantheon of saints who equip us to become the people of God, and the communion of saints whose presence and grace is found in the most surprising of places.
Yes, spirits will abound on Halloween. But so will the saints, for the spirit that disciples of Christ follow is the wind of the Holy Spirit. We can be saints to every child who knocks on our door on Halloween. If we open our lives to offer them grace, how might their lives be changed?
By our smiles and hospitality, we teach children about sainthood whether they know it or not. So I’ll be home on Halloween with the porch light on, handing out candy and remembering my joy as an eight-year-old running from house to house yelling, “Trick or Treat.” There is something hopeful about welcoming baseball players, angels, California raisins, tootsie rolls and pirates, so excited they can hardly talk.
I won’t recognize the vast majority of these children, even if they took off their masks. Yet there is something sacred about opening our door to others on a crisp, dark autumn night, greeting children with a smile and a candy bar and giving a neighborly nod to parents waiting on the sidewalk. It’s the kind of radical hospitality we talk about all the time in the church.
I’ll be waiting to open the door, along with the fellowship of saints. Edith will be there, too. She’s not a goblin, you know. She’s a saint, watching over her church. And Old Jeffrey will be there as well. He’s not a ghoul, either. He also is a saint, who kept the Wesley family alert to the work of God in their midst and keeps us awake, too. It’s the entire communion of saints. And I mean to be one, too. Do you?