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 A golden full moon rising over dark water and silhouetting rocks jutting out of the water.

Medieval Halloween

A Fifteenth Century Poem for All Hallows Eve

Colin Fields

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  • Olive D.

    Yes, I was familiar with All Hallows Eve (and All Saints Day, Nov. 1) but wasn't aware that the tradition was to pray for departed souls. I grew up being taught that celebrating Halloween was not right, but I've had to do a bit of thinking about it personally as I had a bit of a run-in with my boss about it after I objected to some of the Halloween-themed merchandise he brought in. He said it was 'just another Hallmark holiday'...I've come to strongly disagree with that. A holiday that celebrates death and evil is, to me, well- death and evil.

  • Erna Albertz, Plough.com

    Thanks for reading this article! We (and especially our music editor) would be interested in your response.

    1) Were you familiar with the tradition of "All Hallows Eve" before reading this?
    2) If you are a Christian, do you believe in celebrating Halloween? Why or why not?

The Plough Music Series is a regular selection of music intended to lift your heart to God. This is not a playlist of background music: each installment will focus on a single piece worth pausing to enjoy.

Since at least the seventh century, Christians have observed a vigil on All Hallows Eve to pray for the souls of the recently departed. Because Halloween is mostly a secular festival now, we’ll go to an anonymous fifteenth century poem, the Lyke Wake Dirge, for a reminder (jumping to the nineteenth century and paraphrasing Jacob Marley) that the chains we forge in life will remain our fetters – and that, more hopefully, our deeds of love can set us free, as promised in Matthew 25:31-46:

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?”

And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”

Then he will say to those at his left hand, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”

Benjamin Britten wrote a setting for the Dirge (you can read some background on the poem here, but really, with the music, you won’t need to) in 1943. Beginning eerily with an unaccompanied tenor voice, the music soon becomes sinister with the addition of a scrabbling fugue in the low strings. The crescendo of sound and pitch reaches its height at 1:57, because now we have a horn playing at full volume as well. It all dies back down to the single voice: “And Christe receive thy saule.”

The 2004 recording below features Anthony Rolfe-Johnson with Michael Thompson on the horn.

Lyke Wake Dirge

This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
Every nighte and alle,
Fire and fleet and candle-lighte,
And Christe receive thy saule.

When thou from hence away art past,
Every nighte and alle,
To Whinny-muir thou com'st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If ever thou gavest hosen and shoon,
Every nighte and alle,
Sit thee down and put them on;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If hosen and shoon thou ne'er gav'st nane
Every nighte and alle,
The whinnes sall prick thee to the bare bane;
And Christe receive thy saule.

From Whinny-muir whence thou may'st pass,
Every nighte and alle,
To Brig o' Dread thou com'st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

From Brig o' Dread whence thou may'st pass,
Every nighte and alle,
To Purgatory fire thou com'st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If ever thou gav'st meat or drink,
Every nighte and alle,
The fire sall never make thee shrink;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If meat or drink thou ne'er gav'st nane,
Every nighte and alle,
The fire will burn thee to the bare bane;
And Christe receive thy saule.

This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
Every nighte and alle,
Fire and fleet and candle-lighte,
And Christe receive thy saule.

Hear a recording of the Lyke Wake Dirge.

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 A golden full moon rising over dark water and silhouetting rocks jutting out of the water.
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