October 29, 1999
by Page McKean Zyromski
Halloween has grown into a major secular holiday in American culture. But for those who don't value devotion to the saints, the Eve has become "hollow" instead of "hallow." The purpose behind it has been lostlike celebrating New Year's Eve without a New Year's Day. Take away the saints and our beliefs about the dignity and destiny of human beings, and the only thing left is pre-Christian superstition regarding the dead.
Among many Christians, there has been concern that things have gotten out of hand. After all, doesn't Halloween glorify evil? Is it right to send our children out as devils and vampires, or is it better to emphasize the saints, whose nearly forgotten feast day is the reason for Halloween? Hallow is the same word for "holy" that we find in the Lord's Prayer, and e'en is a contraction of "evening." The word Halloween itself is a shortened form of "All Hallows Eve," the day before All Saints Day.
Halloween, properly understood and celebrated with all of its fun trappings, can be a way for us to deepen our understanding of our faith. The key to this understanding is close at hand for Catholics in our love of the communion of saints.
Martyr means `witness'
Until the ninth century the Church celebrated the popular feast of All Saints on May 13th, during the season of joy after the Resurrection. This is the light in which we see all the faithful who have died, especially those whose witness to Christ is an inspiration. In 835 the date was deliberately changed to November 1 to Christianize the existing pagan time for remembering the deadto bring light to the darkness, and hope to the most basic of human fears.
Before canonization was ever thought of, before the New Testament books even took shape, the human desire to remember deceased loved ones surfaced. And these were no ordinary loved ones, these were brothers and sisters who had died in Christ, as witnesses to Christ. (The Greek word martyr simply means "witness.") Their death was victory, not defeat; celebration, not mourning.
One vigil, two feasts
For the first 1,000 years of Christianity there was no collective memorial for All Souls. Relatives and loved ones were remembered at Mass on the anniversary of their death, or until they passed out of living memory. But by the seventh century monasteries were celebrating an annual Mass for all the deceased of their order, an idea which spread to the laity. About 1048, an influential abbot chose November 2 to commemorate All Souls because it was an obvious companion date and extension of the Feast of All Saints. Both days are reminders that all of us, living and dead, are united in a living communion with Christ and one another.
In effect, Halloween became one vigil for two feasts celebrated by the whole Church. In the 16th century at the time of the Reformation, most Protestants discarded both the doctrine of the communion of saints and the practice of praying for the dead. All Hallows Eve became "hollow" for them, the vigil of an empty feast day.
How can we keep the religious connection and curb pre-Christian trappings? Many parishes invite the kids to dress up for an All Saints procession at the vigil Mass. A boy wearing a crown and a velour bathrobe is St. Louis, the King of France. A girl with an armful of silk roses is the Little Flower. These cute processions are certainly a wonderful way for young Catholics to learn about the communion of saints.
But many kids are more likely to excitedly put on ghoulish makeup to get ready for parties or trick or treat. Their instincts are right: Skeletons and jack-o'-lanterns and shocking costumes are very much a part of All Hallows Eve. It's the adults who shy away from eyeballing their own mortality.
The kids are right. Death is not cute. Halloween began with martyrs, after all, so strange makeup and skull masks are not out of line.
Lessons and limits
At Halloween we need to use discernment to separate the symbols, to protect our children from very real dangers, to cut through the customs that contradict our relationship with God, including occult practices.
At this time of year violent movies with Halloween settings flood television and video stores; warped personalities copy malicious acts "for fun"; young people experiment with the occult because of publicity given to witches and warlocks.
It's precisely because Catholics do believe in the reality of evil that we promise to turn away from "Satan and all his works" in the baptismal rite. Here's a chance for parents (and godparents) to make good on that promise: Be vigilant about television and video games, don't give warped personalities the publicity they crave, choose carefully if and where your child will trick or treat.
Separating the symbols
So how do we separate the symbols of Halloween? Do we stop serving cider and doughnuts because apples were sacred to the Roman goddess Pomona, and doughnuts were once set out as "food" for the souls of the dead (their circular shape indicating eternity)? Of course not. Our gratitude for God's bounty eclipses all that.
What about trick or treat? 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.
The connection between trick or treat and forgiveness deserves to be reclaimed, don't you think? While we wait for an imaginative catechist to draw up a format, we can allow our kids to enjoy the costumes, the goodies, the excitement of traipsing around after dark if we exercise prudence. Most communities now impose a curfew for trick or treat, and most parents select the houses of friends they know. Sometimes the PTA will sponsor a party. Avoiding costumes and decorations that glorify witches and devils goes without saying, but there's no reason to fear skeletons or skulls. After all, can't skulls and skeletons be healthy reminders of human mortality? Can't witches and devils symbolize the evil Christ has overcome?
Pumpkins as well as halos
Jack-o'-lanterns have a special place for Catholics on Halloween when we're able to tell the story. The saints in their costumes remind us of the great heights we can reach. Skeletons, skulls and trick or treaters remind us of our own mortality and the need to pray for the dead. Jack stands in between as a one-man morality play.
The folktale of "Jack o' the Lantern" arrived with early Irish Catholic colonists in Maryland. It quickly grew in popularity because of the independent spirit admired in this country. Jack has the cleverness to outwit the devil himself, but it isn't enough to get him into heaven. He must roam forever between heaven and earth, holding his pumpkin lantern high.
As you carve your pumpkin (or roast the oiled seeds at 325 degrees for 25 minutes), tell others the tale behind jack-o'-lanterns. Talk about what it means to be a saint and why Jack didn't make the grade. Don't be afraid to point out the "moral of the story" (which is why it was told in the first place). Jack was so self-centered he never helped another human being. He was given a good set of brains, but he used this gift only for himself. He knew about faith and the power of the cross, but he used it like a piece of magic instead of as the way of Jesus (see Luke 9:23).
Halloween's positive messages
Halloween and its back-to-back feast days mean more than talking about our favorite saints who lived in another time, another place. It's also an opportunity to talk about what's needed for holiness now (perhaps even martyrdom now, sad to say).
Halloween also invites us to talk openly about death in a culture that labors mightily to deny it. Seventy-five percent of Americans do not have a valid will, much less a Living Will or an organ donor card. "If I die..." people say, instead of, "when I die." Do we think death is optional? 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.
Occasionally we must push the "pause" button in our busy lives to consider our own mortality with all its spiritual and practical consequences. The Church gives us two feasts and the whole month of November to do this.
Halloween is like our Mardi Gras before a very serious Lent. We should be able to laugh at the dark side and dress up in costumes and have parties. Let's reclaim our heritage with all the story power, creativity and joyous good fun that we can. Let's use it to help us become the saints we are each called to be.
Halloween is a victory celebration, after all!
(Page McKean Zyromski is a free-lance writer and contributing editor of Catechist magazine who lives in Painesville, Ohio. Editor's Note: This story was edited for size, from its original version.)
Jack, the Irish say, grew up in a simple village where he earned a reputation for cleverness as well as laziness. He applied his fine intelligence to wiggling out of any work that was asked of him, preferring to lie under a solitary oak endlessly whittling. In order to earn money to spend at the local pub, he looked for an "easy shilling" from gambling, a pastime at which he excelled. In his whole life he never made a single enemy, never made a single friend and never performed a selfless act for anyone.
One Halloween, as it happened, the time came for him to die. When the devil arrived to take his soul, Jack was lazily drinking at the pub and asked permission to finish his ale. The devil agreed, and Jack thought fast. "If you really have any power," he said slyly, "you could transform yourself into a shilling."
The devil snorted at such child's play and instantly changed himself into a shilling. Jack grabbed the coin. He held it tight in his hand, which bore a cross-shaped scar. The power of the cross kept the devil imprisoned there, for everyone knows the devil is powerless when faced with the cross. Jack would not let the devil free until he granted him another year of life. Jack figured that would be plenty of time to repent. The devil left Jack at the pub.
The year rolled around to the next Halloween, but Jack never got around to repenting. Again the devil appeared to claim his soul, and again Jack bargained, this time challenging him to a game of dice, an offer Satan could never resist, but a game that Jack excelled at. The devil threw snake eyestwo onesand was about to haul him off, but Jack used a pair of dice he himself had whittled. When they landed as two threes, forming the T-shape of a cross, once again the devil was powerless. Jack bargained for more time to repent.
He kept thinking he'd get around to repentance later, at the last possible minute. But the agreed-upon day arrived and death took him by surprise. The devil hadn't showed up and Jack soon found out why not. Before he knew it Jack was in front of the pearly gates. St. Peter shook his head sadly and could not admit him, because in his whole life Jack had never performed a single selfless act. Then Jack presented himself before the gates of hell, but the devil was still seething. Satan refused to have anything to do with him.
"Where can I go?" cried Jack. "How can I see in the darkness?"
The devil tossed a burning coal into a hollow pumpkin and ordered him to wander forever with only the pumpkin to light his path. From that day to this he has been called "Jack o' the Lantern." Sometimes he appears on Halloween!