Today, Halloween rivals Christmas as a holiday for decorating and outdoes Easter in candy-coating and significance in most families. But there's something very different about the fall masquerade and sugary celebration. Like these other two religious memorials, it's rooted in giving and honoring exceptional love and goodness although most folks are now oblivious to its charitable meaning.
The term "All Hallows Eve" comes from very old Middle English and is deeply Catholic and ancient in origin. In the Church calendar, October 31 is the eve of the feast of All Saints Day or a special day for all holy men and women. November 2 is All Souls Day, when the faithful remember the lives of the rest of those who have died. Mexicans call it Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead.
In jolly old England, the needy knocked on doors and begged for "soul cakes" in exchange for a promise to pray for the dead of the household. I remember as a kid sometimes yelling "Help the poor!" as we approached porches with our pillowcases and sacks full of apples, penny candy, coins and small bags of potato chips. Little did I know that real disadvantaged people once fed genuine hunger with their Halloween take of shortbread and currants.
The Brits, Scots and Irish immigrants imported this custom to the U.S. and it was observed in Maryland more than Protestant states. Over time, the alchemy of America's melting pot blended Halloween with Native American and other traditions to create the modern version of Halloween that emphasizes most every superhero and unusual personality except the likes of saints, martyrs and the poor.
Butterfingers, Kit Kats and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups have long replaced the carefully baked spiritual pastries that once satisfied the hungry. But on no other American holiday are people so truly generous. Think about it: strangers beg at the doors of millions of Americans who joyfully give them treats. Long gone are the devilish tricks that led to waxy windows and rotten eggs smashed on cars. The giving is not in response to that threat of nasty pranks, but to participate in the simple bliss of watching children laugh and make believe. People even hand out goodies to kids from the other side of the tracks, when vans full of youngsters pull up to safer, more affluent neighborhoods. Sure, some doors close and porch lights go out, but most homeowners don't mind giving away hundreds of pieces of candy in exchange for nothing. No feasting and gift swapping like Christmas. No brunch, flowers and egg hunts like Easter. Just joyful giving to children we often don't know.
T'here's something about this custom that celebrates the essence of Christianity. Our simple generosity to strangers commemorates the true origin of this holiday, even though we've long forgotten that it really represents a memorial for our good dead.