The Feast of Hallowmas

You can tell the strange disconnect between the holidays of October 31 and November 1 by the fact that the first is popularly called Halloween, and the second All Saints’ Day. Hallowmas and All Hallows’ Day are among the other names for the church feast of November 1, and from these names, of course, Halloween is derived. Yet the holidays have parted ways, and so have their names.

The feast of Hallowmas was founded in honor of all the saints. The holiday’s antecedent was a day of commemoration for the martyrs, later broadened to honor all the saints in Heaven. Saints, as a religious term, has two meanings—first, that of dead Christians canonized by the Church, and sometimes the object of prayer or worship; second, that of all Christians, without qualification. I must note that the Bible uses saints in this second sense.

Because it was established under the Catholic Church, All Saints’ Day was probably intended to celebrate saints in the first, qualified definition. Since the Protestant Reformation, some churches have broadened the holiday to commemorate all Christians who have died—who would together be called, in an old phrase, the Church Triumphant. In its broadest sense, Hallowmas is a holiday in which the Church Militant (in the world) honors the Church Triumphant (in Heaven). The only vestige of Hallowmas in Halloween, as it is currently celebrated, is the thought of death.

Some Christians, if belonging to traditions that incorporate All Saints’ Day, remember the recently departed on November 1. Following on that thought, I am going to conclude with a brief verse written by Alfred Tennyson; the friend mentioned is dead, and Tennyson is grieving for him.



of In Memoriam A. H.H.

Love is and was my Lord and King,
      And in his presence I attend
      To hear the tidings of my friend,
Which every hour his couriers bring.

Love is and was my King and Lord,
      And will be, tho’ as yet I keep
      Within his court on earth, and sleep
Encompass’d by his faithful guard,

And hear at times a sentinel
      Who moves about from place to place,
      And whispers to the worlds of space,
In the deep night, that all is well.

Review: The Ballad of St. Barbara

There is an old legend of St. Barbara, patron saint of artillery and of those in danger of sudden death. And there are, I suppose, few better places to tell it than in the trenches of World War I.

The Ballad of St. Barbara is written in two parts, both verse, alternating the legend of St. Barbara with a story of the First Battle of Marne. As the English line was driven backward before the German guns, one Englishman spoke to another:

There was an end to Ilium; and an end came to Rome;
And a man plays on a painted stage in the land that he calls home;
Arch after arch of triumph, but floor beyond falling floor,
That lead to a low door at last; and beyond there is no door.

And the other, a Breton, answered:

There are more windows in one house than there are eyes to see,
There are more doors in a man’s house, but God has hid the key:
Ruin is a builder of windows; her legend witnesseth
Barbara, the saint of gunners, and a stay in sudden death.

The verses that tell of Barbara have a simple, lyrical rhythm – four brief lines, the second rhyming with the fourth. The WWI verses are more complex, and not always easy to follow. Both are compellingly written, filled with wonderful phrases and evocative imagery.

“Her face was like a window / Where a man’s first love looked out” – a favorite Chesterton simile. “A seraph’s strong wing shaken out the shock of its unshuttering;” “Dark with the fate of a falling star;” Caesar’s  “iron armies wound like chains / Round and round the world.”

Chesterton connects and mixes the two halves of his poem with great skill, and each strengthens the meaning of the other. They join in fear, triumph, and courage – and in the opening of the third window, in the last name of God. (After Barbara had “riven roof and wall” to make a third window, her father asked, “Hath a man three eyes, Barbara, a bird three wings?” And the answer is no – but God has three names.)

There are those who would point out that even if she ever existed, Barbara is not the patron saint of gunners, or of anyone else. But if it’s historical facts you’re after, you won’t be reading poetry anyway. The Ballad of St. Barbara is beautiful, memorable, touching chords of the heart – as a poem should.