Tuesday, 31 October 2017

A Quaker Halloween

It's a strange idea, isn't it? After all, the traditional Quaker testimony against keeping of times and seasons holds that there is no spiritual significance to any day. Quakers do not, traditionally, take liturgical notice of Christian seasons and festivals, be it Lent or Advent, Easter or Christmas. How then can we have a Quaker Halloween, a festival that is now of limited liturgical significance even to mainstream Christian churches.
There's more to Halloween than the lack of liturgical significance, however, and more to Quaker approaches to Christmas and Easter than their lack of liturgical significance for us. The important aspect of many of these festivals is now, in the global economic north, cultural. Practising members of many faiths will celebrate elements of such holidays, giving presents and attending parties.
Then, also, there is the strong religious significance of Halloween to many modern pagans, generally those of traditions claiming heritage of the British Isles or Northern Europe, though they may call it other names, such as Samhain (pronounced without even the hint of an English phonetic 'm', by the way), the Gaelic/Celtic celebration marking the end of the harvest and beginning of the darkest part of the year. Both Celtic Reconstructionists and Wiccans hold it to be a day of special significance to the dead, a time for honouring and remembering them, or even communicating with them.
Liberal Quaker practice and teaching is a marvellous balance of the individual with the communal; a path that allows individuality without individualism. As such, any attempt to consider the relevance or importance of anything to Quakers has to be bracketed in with caveats about the difference of individuals and that the speaker speaks only for themselves. However, I will try to give some ideas about what other Friends have expressed to me, and what I think Halloween could mean, or how it could be used by Friends that have paid it little regard before now.
The very name of Halloween comes from the Christian liturgical calendar, even if it has little meaning for Christian liturgy now. The 1st of November is All Saints' Day, or the Feast of All Saints, also known as All Hallows' Day; the 2nd is All Souls' Day, the feast commemorating all of the “faithful departed”, that is to say, those who died baptised, although the restriction to the baptised has generally been loosened in recent centuries. These are both “celebrations” of the dead, and are often handled together. All Hallows' Eve refers to the evening before these feasts, when vigils are traditionally held. The connection of these celebrations to the pre-existing pagan celebrations at this time of year are most likely not coincidental, though the Christian calendar pinned them down when it is likely that the pre-Christian celebrations moved somewhat; some theorise that Samhain was celebrated at the first frost, or the day the local harvest was completed. It was celebrated from sundown on the day in question, which the Christian practice of an evening vigil before All Saints' Day fits with. Both festivals concern the dead, though this was only part of the meaning of the day to the pre-Christian pagans. This is, in fact, one of the pre-Christian celebrations of the Gaelic and Celtic world that there is good evidence for, so perhaps one of the best cases for the allegation of appropriation by early Christian authorities.
Quakers, in my experience, spend little time openly considering the dead. Given the range of attitudes to the question of what happens after death, and perhaps the perfectly good reasons we find no need to dwell on such questions, this is unsurprising. But the act of thinking of the dead, even of praying for them – a common feature of many faiths – is not something that carries benefits only (if at all) for the deceased themselves. Much as a funeral serves an important psychological and spiritual purpose for the bereaved and other mourners, so too can remembrance later on. To remember those beautiful moments you shared with the deceased, or the characteristics that made them special is like reflecting on a beautiful painting or sculpture, and doing so from time to time helps keep those memories fresh. Perhaps such practices, whether you take them as inspired by pagan Samhain or Christian All Souls' Day, might see some role in Quaker practice – not as formal rituals, but as a spiritual practice that some Friends might find helpful.
Then, of course, there is the modern secular Halloween, of the costumes and pumpkins and trick-or-treat. I confess that I am at a loss in seeing a spiritual practice that Quakers might draw from this – but spiritual practice is not all there is to life. Secular, cultural celebration of holidays and festivals helps to build community; this can be strengthening our community, as the Religious Society of Friends, but also building our links, both as individuals and as Meetings, with the wider communities within which we are situated. There's also another, very important value, personal and religious, to these celebrations. As noted in written ministry elsewhere on this blog, faith is also found in joy and laughter, the lighter side of life. Our spirituality would be hollow, were we serious and sombre all the time.
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