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Halloween reminds us that if we confront our fear of death in small ways throughout our lives, we will be more willing to take that final step at the end of our earthly journey. Learning to laugh at fearsome costumes is one way to do that. We discover that death is just one more disguise.

Halloween: A Season of Saints
By: Diane M. Houdek


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We’re so familiar with pumpkins, black cats, witches’ hats, and skeletons at this time of year that we often don’t give much thought to what lies behind this orange-and-black extravaganza. Halloween has become a huge secular and consumer holiday, at times rivaling Christmas in hype and popularity. From candy to decorations to costumes to elaborate parties, Halloween is now the big autumn celebration.

A quick look at costume choices on kids trick-or-treating through any neighborhood gives us some idea of what Halloween has come to mean. Superheroes are a perennial favorite, as are various animals, princesses, pirates, and clowns, as well as skeletons, witches, and mummies. Harry Potter and his mates from Hogwarts now roam the streets, and zombies are everywhere.

Each year, we hear Halloween is an ancient pagan festival that was taken over by the Church. Or we hear it’s a celebration of evil and witchcraft and that Christians shouldn’t take part in it. But from its earliest beginnings, this holiday was linked to the feast of All Saints. The word Halloween is a shortened form of “All Hallows Eve,” the day before All Saints’ Day. Hallow is the same word for “holy” that we find in the Lord’s Prayer, and e’en is a contraction of “evening.”

In fact, the connection between Halloween, the saints, and medieval Catholic customs may have been the reason the holiday has been criticized since the time of the Reformation. So let’s take a look at why this day is something to celebrate.

Costumes and Customs

The tradition of Halloween costumes has its roots in the Middle Ages as a reaction to the outbreaks of bubonic plague, now known as the Black Death. As Europe lost nearly half of its population, the survivors were deeply concerned about questions of the afterlife.

Historian Father Augustine Thompson, O.P., writes in a BeliefNet article about Halloween, “More Masses were said on All Souls’ Day, and artistic representations were devised to remind everyone of their own mortality. We know these representations as the danse macabre, or ‘dance of death,’ which was commonly painted on the walls of cemeteries and shows the devil leading popes, kings, ladies, knights, monks, peasants, lepers, etc. into the tomb. Sometimes the dance was presented on All Souls’ Day itself as a living tableau with people dressed up in the garb of various states of life.”

As we and our children choose costumes for celebrating this holiday, we might think about how our choices express who we are, who we want to be, what we desire, what we fear. We might dress as saints; we might dress as sinners. The wide variety reminds us that God’s love is available to all.

The custom of going door to door asking for treats of some kind can be found in a variety of ethnic traditions in Europe and among immigrants to the United States. Sometimes it is combined with a harvest festival; other times it is part of visiting family graves in the cemetery.

In the Northern Hemisphere, Halloween coincides with the end of the harvest season. Even those of us who live in cities resonate with turning leaves, apples and cider, pumpkins, decorative cornstalks, and other autumn images. It’s no coincidence that as the summer’s vegetation dies and the fields lie fallow, our thoughts turn to our own deaths.

Page Zyromski, in the Catholic Update “How Halloween Can Be Redeemed,” tells us that in the Middle Ages “there was a superstition that those who had died the previous year without being reconciled to you might rise to haunt you, appearing as will-o’-the-wisps or ghosts. The apparition jarred you so you would release them by prayer and forgiveness. You might also appease them with ‘soul cakes’—cookies, fried cakes, ‘treats’—so they wouldn’t do you any mischief with their ‘tricks.’ Soon those who were living began to use the occasion for reconciliation. To wipe the slate clean for the coming year, they came, masked and unrecognizable, and boldly bargained for treats.”

In our own day, whether or not our children have ready access to candy and other sweets during the year, Halloween is still the kind of super-abundance of treats that we might think of as a metaphor of God’s grace, free for the asking.

To Be Hallowed

Halloween and its back-to-back feast days of All Saints and All Souls offer us an opportunity to talk about what it means to be holy. The Gospel for the November 1 Feast of All Saints includes the Beatitudes from Matthew’s Gospel. “Blessed are the poor in Spirit.... Blessed are the meek.... Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.... Blessed are those who mourn.” The saints model for us what living these Beatitudes might look like.

“I believe...in the communion of saints,” we say every Sunday in the Creed. Whether or not we believe, as our ancestors did, that at this time of year, the veil between life and death thins, our faith tells us that those in heaven and those on earth are united in the one kingdom of God. We ask the saints to pray for us the same way we might ask a good friend to pray.

Death is a fact of life. When St. Francis of Assisi lay dying he said, “Welcome, Sister Death,” recognizing that death was just another creaturely thing in a world that would one day pass away.

Halloween reminds us that if we confront our fear of death in small ways throughout our lives, we will be more willing to take that final step at the end of our earthly journey. Learning to laugh at fearsome costumes is one way to do that. We discover that death is just one more disguise.


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Dia de los Muertos
The Hispanic Tradition of Honoring Departed Loved Ones

Many cultures around the world have special customs to remember those who have gone before us. In Mexico, this celebration is known as Dia de los Muertos, or “the Day of the Dead.” Family and friends of the deceased gather to share memories and favorite foods, visit and decorate graves, and build shrines. Candles, flowers (particularly marigolds), and small figurines, known as Catrinas, all figure in the observance. Taking place on November 1 and 2, this feast is a recognizable element of Hispanic American spirituality.

One Vigil, Two Feasts

On the first recorded All Saints’ Day, St. Basil of Caesarea in A.D. 397 invited all the Christians of the province of Pontus for a feast honoring the fallen. Originally it was celebrated on May 13, 609, when Pope Boniface IV consecrated Rome’s Pantheon as a church. Built as a pagan temple to the Roman gods, the ancient architectural wonder was dedicated to Mary and all the martyrs. May 13 was declared the Feast of Mary and the Martyrs.

Some believe it was Boniface’s attempt to redeem the Roman Feast of the Lemures in which the malevolent and restless spirits of the dead were honored. Pope Gregory III (d. 741) moved it to November 1, the dedication day of All Saints Chapel in St. Peter’s at Rome. Later, in the 840s, Pope Gregory IV commanded that All Saints be observed everywhere.

By the seventh century, monasteries were celebrating an annual Mass for all the deceased of their communities, an idea that spread to the laity. In 998, St. Odilo, the abbot of the powerful monastery of Cluny in southern France, added a celebration on November 2. This was a day of prayer for the souls of all the faithful departed. This feast, called All Souls’ Day, spread from France to the rest of Europe.

Today the Feast of All Saints is a holy day of obligation. Whether we celebrate its vigil with prayer or with Halloween festivities, we gather the next day in our churches to celebrate those who have died. The Feast of All Souls is often a time when parish communities celebrate in a special way those who have died during the past year, comforting those who still grieve and remembering the gifts of those who have gone before us.


Diane M. Houdek is digital editor for Franciscan Media. She edits Bringing Home the Word, a monthly lectionary resource, and is the author of Advent with St. Francis and Lent with St. Francis.

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James: This James is the brother of John the Evangelist. The two were called by Jesus as they worked with their father in a fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus had already called another pair of brothers from a similar occupation: Peter and Andrew. “He walked along a little farther and saw James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They too were in a boat mending their nets. Then he called them. So they left their father Zebedee in the boat along with the hired men and followed him” (Mark 1:19-20). 
<p>James was one of the favored three who had the privilege of witnessing the Transfiguration, the raising to life of the daughter of Jairus and the agony in Gethsemani. </p><p>Two incidents in the Gospels describe the temperament of this man and his brother. St. Matthew tells that their mother came (Mark says it was the brothers themselves) to ask that they have the seats of honor (one on the right, one on the left of Jesus) in the kingdom. “Jesus said in reply, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?’ They said to him, ‘We can’” (Matthew 20:22). Jesus then told them they would indeed drink the cup and share his baptism of pain and death, but that sitting at his right hand or left was not his to give—it “is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father” (Matthew 20:23b). It remained to be seen how long it would take to realize the implications of their confident “We can!” </p><p>The other disciples became indignant at the ambition of James and John. Then Jesus taught them all the lesson of humble service: The purpose of authority is to serve. They are not to impose their will on others, or lord it over them. This is the position of Jesus himself. He was the servant of all; the service imposed on him was the supreme sacrifice of his own life. </p><p>On another occasion, James and John gave evidence that the nickname Jesus gave them—“sons of thunder”—was an apt one. The Samaritans would not welcome Jesus because he was on his way to hated Jerusalem. “When the disciples James and John saw this they asked, ‘Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?’ Jesus turned and rebuked them...” (Luke 9:54-55). </p><p>James was apparently the first of the apostles to be martyred. “About that time King Herod laid hands upon some members of the church to harm them. He had James, the brother of John, killed by the sword, and when he saw that this was pleasing to the Jews he proceeded to arrest Peter also” (Acts 12:1-3a). </p><p>This James, sometimes called James the Greater, is not to be confused with James the Lesser (May 3) or with the author of the Letter of James and the leader of the Jerusalem community.</p> American Catholic Blog We don’t need so much to talk about God but to allow people to feel how God lives within us, that’s our work.

 
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