TIMES & SEASONS: REDEEMING HALLOWEEN
It’s the time of year when the supermarkets, card shops and fancy dress shops are preparing their costumes, and merchandise for the celebration of Halloween. The feast has become shallowed rather than hallowed! The purpose behind it has been lost, our beliefs about the dignity and destiny of human beings taken over by superstitions regarding the dead.
Among many Christians there is concern: does Hallowe’en glorify evil? Should our children dress up as witches, wizards and vampires? Should they be ‘trick’ or ‘treating’? How do Catholics reclaim the meaning and significance of Hallowe’en?
‘Hallow’ means ‘holy’, and ‘e’en’ is the contraction of the word ‘evening’ – so Hallowe’en is the shortened form of All Hallows Eve - the day before the feast of All Saints. This feast, if it is properly understood and celebrated can be fun and is a way for us to deepen our understanding of our faith.
On the feast of All Saints the Church honours the saints that we don’t know ‘the great multitude no man could number, of all nations and tribes and peoples and tongues’ (Rev 7: 9-10).
Until the 9th century the Church celebrated this feast on May 13th. However, the date was changed so that it could be linked to pagan times of remembering the dead, and these pagan ceremonies could be christianised.
All Hallows eve is actually the vigil of two feasts – the second being the feast of All Souls. For the first 1,000 years of Christianity there was no collective memorial of All Souls. Relatives and loved ones were remembered at Mass on their anniversaries, until they passed out of living memory. But, by the 7th century monasteries were celebrating annual Masses for all the deceased of the Order and this idea caught on with the laity. And so eventually it was considered appropriate to commemorate All Souls because it is an obvious extension of the Feast of All Saints. Both of these days are reminders that all of us, living and dead, are in communion with Christ and with one another.
Restoring positive images
Hallowe’en and its feasts give us the opportunity to talk about saints, and to look at what is needed for holiness now. It enables us to revisit the doctrine ‘I believe in the communion of Saints.’
We honour and learn from the example of the saints. We ask the saints to pray for us in the same way that we might ask a good friend to pray. ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name’ (Mt 18:20) does not necessarily refer to the living. It’s comforting to have a ‘cloud of witnesses’ to pray with us (Heb 12:1).
Hallowe’en also invites us to talk about death and resurrection, to look at ‘Sister Death’ and to run counter to a culture that avoids all mention of death.
So how do we celebrate Hallowe’en? One way is by dressing up, retelling, re-enacting the stories of the saints and the martyrs - St. Lawrence, St. Thomas More, St. Margaret Clitherow, and so on. The Catholic tradition is full of stories of people who endured horrible things in order to witness to God’s love and fidelity and this is surely worth the re-telling!
Our gratitude to God leads us to celebrate and to have parties and games - bobbing apples, and so on. Some parishes are now organising ‘vigils’ for Hallowe’en, using symbols of light, carved out pumpkins, and home-made light-holders made from decorated jam jars, concentrating on the theme of ‘light in darkness.’ They even invite families to dress up. We have to be careful to avoid costumes and decorations glorifying witches and devils. It is precisely because Catholics believe in the reality of evil that we promise to ‘turn away from Satan and all his works’. Here’s a chance for parents, teachers and catechists to help children keep that promise, through being vigilant about costumes, as well as TV and video games, and not being naive about the dangers around us. (But there’s no real reason to fear skeletons or skulls, since they can be healthy reminders of human mortality).
Jack-o’-lanterns have a special place for Catholics on Hallowe’en when we can retell the story.
The folklore of Jack-o’-lantern came from the Irish tradition. Jack has the cleverness to outwit the devil but it isn’t enough to get him into heaven. He must roam forever holding his pumpkin lantern high. It’s a story in which you can focus on what it is to be a saint and why Jack didn’t make the grade. Jack was too selfish to consider other human beings. He knew about faith and the power of the cross but used it as a piece of magic instead of as the way of Jesus (cf Lk 9:23).
Through this story we can put across the message that the cross is strong enough to vanquish the devil and that it’s embracing the cross that brings eternal life. Christ has conquered sin and Satan once and for all. All of us share in that victory (look at the marvellous passages in
CCC 391, 395).
Sr Gillian Murphy is a Sister of Providence and a member of the Department for Parish and Family Catechesis at Maryvale Institute.