Marginalia: What is Remembered, Lives

 November 4, 2019
Posted by Michael Woolf
The sermon What is Remembered, Lives was delivered Nov. 3, 2019, during el día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead service.

Click here to listen.

There is so much to say about what didn’t make it into this sermon. Much of it centers on the festivals of Samhain and the holiday’s Gaelic, pagan celebrations. It cannot be overstated that Samhain’s roots were central to a society that had the herding of cattle as its central concerns, as November 1st was of little use as a day for an agrarian society. It marked the central change in grazing patterns as well as the moment when a determination had to be made about which parts of herd were to be slaughtered. Great bonfires were the central ritual of the Gaelic practice, and stones as well as the bones of slaughtered cattle were cast into these bonfires on the holy day. Importantly, it was said that on this day and Bealtaine (May 1st) that society was particularly open to spirits, whether of ancestors or of woodland sprites. Germanic pagans also used the beginning of winter as a way to mark their dead, and so it is not a coincidence that Pope Gregory decided to move the Christian commemoration of the dead to November 1st (All Saints Day) in order to incorporate the pagan festivals and add new strength to his conversion of pagans in Europe. However, some scholars, such as Nicholas Rogers, disagree with that hypothesis:

Festivals commemorating the saints as opposed to the original Christian martyrs appear to have been observed by 800. In England and Germany, this celebration took place on 1st November. In Ireland, it was commemorated on 20th April, a chronology that contradicts the widely held view that the November date was chosen to Christianize the festival of Samhain.[1]

Perhaps the BBC’s article on Halloween puts it best: “Either way, what we can be sure of is that the modern celebration of Hallowe’en is a complicated mix of evolved (and evolving) traditions and influences.”

Another interesting custom that didn’t make it into this sermon was the practice of souling, which sounds more ominous than it actually is. In certain parts of England to this day, children will make soul cakes, which are small round cakes with the design of a cross imprinted on them, to be handed out to neighbors and those who go knock on your door (those who venture out are called soulers). Folks sometimes dressed in disguise and asked their neighbors to guess who it was. Dressing in costumes and cloaks is common. It’s a separate tradition from American-style Halloween that also incorporates the holiday’s pagan roots, while also having numerous references to purgatory, judgment, and various other Christian themes.

For further reading:

BBC Religion’s Article on Halloween

A children’s rhyme that is sung while making soul cakes

[1] Nicholas Rogers’ Halloween from Pagan Ritual to Party Night

In MARGINALIA, Rev. Michael Woolf takes a deeper dive into
material that didn’t get its due credit from the pulpit.

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