By: Diane M. Houdek
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.
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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.
Dia de los Muertos
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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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