I blame the Germans. November 1st took over from an earlier Celtic tradition which, it seemed, liked to remember the pious departed who suffered grisly deaths, in April. At the beginning of the 8th century, churches were already hijacking the in-house festivities, celebrating All Saints Day on 1 November to coincide with or replace the Celtic festival of Samhain which was nasty, pagan and involved drink. Today’s rites, while sombre, are supposedly benevolent, in spite of invoking horned gods and, although centred on death, do not involve human or animal sacrifices which does come as something of a relief, I have to say. After watching and listening to the screaming of the lambs during the ritual slaughter that is Eid, having more beasts slain in the name of religion is really more than one can bear.
The ‘Aos-Si’ or fairy folk have transparent passage from their world to this one on Samhain and the practice of ‘mumming’ where people went door to door, often in disguise, reciting poetry in exchange for food, was widespread, although the significance of such an activity is lost in antiquity. Dead people showed up at their former homes – just to check that people were looking after them properly, one supposes – and are invited to dinner. I’m not sure if Elijah gets an invitation in addition to Pesach. One imagines not.
Apparently, the feast of All Saints achieved great prominence in the 9th century, in the reign of the Byzantine emperor Leo VI – ‘the Wise’ (866–911). His wife, Empress Theophano, lived a devout life, spending lots of time on her knees in draughty chapels being shriven by monks. After her death in 893, her husband built a church, intending to dedicate it to her. When he was forbidden to do so – history is rather dark about who forbade him – perhaps the troubled Pope Formosus, he decided to dedicate it to “All Saints”, so that if his wife were in fact one of the righteous, she would also be honoured whenever the feast was celebrated; quite a good call really, all bets being suitably hedged. According to tradition, it was Leo who expanded the feast from a commemoration of All Martyrs to a general commemoration of All Saints, whether martyrs or not. Everyone included then, the only criterion being you had to be dead.
And all this is the basis for kids dressing up as ghosties and ghoulies – hammering relentlessly on their neighbours’ doors, demanding excess sugar, without even the courtesy of a line or two of Keats. It must by now be clear that I’m not in favour of this sort of thing. I bar my gate with a broomstick and write runic incantations I got from the Internet on the doorposts, on the grounds that I will not be held responsible for the spike in dental caries as a result of overindulgence. Happy, er, Hallows or Toussaint or… to one and all, martyrs or not.