For some local churches and spiritual groups, the last day of October is a time for special celebration
By Jacqueline Tourville
As darkness fell last Halloween, the Greeley House in downtown Nashua looked like it was in the middle of a trick-or-treat extravaganza. Crowds of costumed kids, carnival games, an oversized bouncy house, eerily glowing spotlights and tables laden with bowl after overflowing bowl of candy packed the riverside landmark's front lawn.
But this wasn't just another sugar-fueled gathering of tiny ghosts and witches. In fact, it wasn't even a Halloween party.
The Greeley House is owned by nearby Grace Fellowship Church and each year on Oct. 31, the church community offers an alternative party at the mansion for member families and friends who have decided -- for reasons of faith -- to opt out of mainstream Halloween activities.
If you looked closely at the hoards of kids happily running amok here, you would have seen a mix of shepherds in flowing robes, winged angels, the animals from Noah's Ark, and maybe even Noah himself at the Gathering of Peculiar People. Games revolved around Bible stories (can you knock over Goliath using David's slingshot?) and prizes included Christian-themed stickers and trinkets. The one thing that wasn't different was the candy. And that's all that seemed to matter to young party-goers.
Grace Church in Nashua is but one of a growing number of churches in the Granite State making the choice to eschew certain elements of All Hallows' Eve in favor of more spirit-centered activities for families. What's the big deal about Halloween? Here’s more about this devilishly, sometimes controversial holiday that is viewed either as a trick or treat by local faith groups.
Today it is a chance to ring door bells and demand candy, but Halloween's origins date to the ancient Celtic new year festival of Samhain. Celebrated every Nov. 1, for the Celts of northwestern Europe, Samhain marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year associated with death.
According to the The Book of Hallowe'en, by Ruth Edna Kelly, on the night before the new year (Oct. 31), Celts believed the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred, giving the ghosts of the dead a chance to walk the earth. In addition to causing mischief and damaging crops, Celts believed the presence of otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids or Celtic priests to make predictions about the future.
To mark the occasion, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, around which people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. During the celebration, Celts wore costumes of animal heads and skins and attempted to tell each other's fortunes. When Christianity spread across Western Europe in the 800s, the Catholic Church designated Nov. 1 as All Saints' Day, a time to honor saints and martyrs. It is widely believed today that the pope was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a church-sanctioned holiday.
The celebration was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas and the night before it began to be called All-hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween. Even later, in A.D. 1000, the church would make Nov. 2 All Souls' Day, a day to honor the dead. For a long time, All Souls' Day was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels, and devils.
Fast forward to 2009 and Halloween has morphed into a hodgepodge of witches, black cats, ghosts, vampires, skeletons, ’tweens trying to scare the neighborhood children with their ghoulish Scream masks, and front yards decorated with tombstones and coffins. Because these echoes of Halloween's pagan past persist, some faith groups, mainly Christian churches, have started to hold alternative celebrations more in keeping with their spiritual beliefs.
"Our aim is to give kids a positive night of fun and games away from the negative messages of darkness and fear that is promoted by Halloween," said Carl McKenzie, Outreach Director for Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ in Portsmouth. Each year, like Grace in Nashua, the ACJS puts on a harvest festival that invites kids to dress in costume, everything from Bible characters to the Flintstones, for an evening of family-focused activities. Samhain
Other spiritual groups in New Hampshire, rather than turn their back on Halloween's pagan traditions, embrace them. The ancient Celts may be long gone, but the observance of Samhain lives on, in of all places, Peterborough.
Now in its third year, "Celebrate Samhain" is an open event for the community featuring a variety of workshops and entertainers intended to appeal to mainstream audiences--while still keeping 'in spirit' with Samhain.
"Samhain marks the final harvest and is a time of celebration, reflection, and tribute to those who have gone on before us. Celebrate Samhain has been mindfully framed as both a celebration for those of Earth-Centric (Pagan) traditions as well as [an introduction to the holiday] for anyone," described Kevin Sartoris, one of the event coordinators.
Held on Oct. 24 at the Unitarian church in Peterborough, Celebrate Samhain family offerings include make-and-take craft workshops for kids, Druidic-style story telling, drumming workshops, fortune tellers, and dance-inducing musical performances. Attendance at the event has grown to more than 1,000 since its inception and this year proceeds from Celebrate Samhain will go to SpiralScouts International, an alternative, coed youth scouting organization.
Church costume parties are usually planned to coincide with town or city trick-or-treat hours; Celebrate Samhain takes place on the Saturday before Halloween, a date with lots of competition from other pre-Halloween activities.
By not taking part in more mainstream Halloween fare, do kids who go to these faith-based events somehow miss out? No way, said Jason Brown, a father of two in Nashua, who attended the Gathering of Peculiar People event in Nashua last year.
"What goes on here [at Grace Church], is just pure fun for kids and parents. The homemade Bible costumes are great, there's hot cider for the parents, lots of games and candy, and even a hayride. In a weird way, it really reminds me of what Halloween was like when I was kid."