May and October are like sisters. Mother Nature bids them don their seasonal colors, the one in spring green and fine florals, and the other in autumnal leaves of olive green, gold, maize, and burnt sienna gracefully falling to the ground. In these two months, Mother Nature treats the senses to an array of beauty. And we participate in her gift to us.
In October as well, we confront those ubiquitous skeletal figures in black. Who can avoid them, fascinating but ugly? Ask the average person the meaning of Halloween, ask costumed doorbell ringers why they are trick-or treating, and blank faces will give you an empty stare.
Pagan Origins of All Hallows’ Eve
Hundreds of years before Christ, the pagan Druids of Celtic lands, prompted by the long nights and early dark of winter months, made mischief by heckling others with mean tricks and scaring them into offering fruits and sweets. In benign contrast, Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruits and gardens, was feted on Nov. 1, but in the Roman Empire, the custom of eating or giving away fruits, and especially apples, became popular. In Ireland and Great Britain, the end of October marked the end of the fall harvest and the beginning of the barren winter.
The Christian Celebration of All Hallows’ Eve
From the seventh or eighth century, Oct. 31 was marked on the Church calendar as All Hallows’ Eve, the eve of All Saints’ Day. Nov. 1 was and is the day on which the Church commemorates those men and women who have died in the bosom of the Church without the official rite of canonization. By the eleventh century, Nov. 2 was dedicated to the commemoration of all the faithful departed, All Souls’ Day.
Knocking on Doors
The English custom of knocking on doors began by begging for a “soul cake” in return for which the beggars promised to pray for the dead of the household. The refrain sung at the door varied. It could be as short as:
“A soul cake, have mercy on all Christian souls for a soul cake” to a later version:
“Soul, soul, an apple or two,
If you haven’t an apple, a pear will do,
One for Peter, two for Paul,
Three for the Man Who made us all.”
The Doughnut and Its Christian Origins
If hot cross buns are traditionally associated with Lent, and pretzels with prayer, the soul cake may be said to have given rise to the doughnut. A hole was carved out of the middle of the soul cake to remind people of eternity and that life on earth was but a transitory reality. Here is a piece of religious trivia, and not just for Dunkin’ Doughnuts.
Later on, charades, pantomime, and mini-dramas were developed on the reality of life after death and the means of attaining salvation. With the remembrance of a saintly life also came images of evil. The familiar and seasonal harvest fruits such as apples, corn stalks and pumpkins were still given out to beggars. Thus, pagan and Christian symbols existed side by side. All Hallows’ Eve was listed on the Church’s liturgical calendar but did not hold the same weight as Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve.
The faithful were reminded of the call to sainthood as well as the reality of death and Purgatory. This thought continues to unite us struggling saints on earth with those in glory and those being purified in Purgatory. The full and complete Body of Christ! Oct. 31 served as the Church’s preparation for both feast days. These were days of remembrances of deceased loved ones. Family members anticipated both days, and they were celebrated in fitting manner. Happily, these days have retained their significance.
Suppression of All Hallows' Eve
In 1955, All Hallows’ Eve was stricken from the Church calendar. Halloween has retrieved its pagan character with public safety measures in place if vandalism should occur and often does. As if to recall evil spirits, the mediocre orchestral piece, “Danse Macabre,” by Camille Saint-Saëns, is traditionally played on Halloween. The tinny, clunky, off-key “devil’s interval” is sounded throughout the composition. So is Halloween really harmless fun? What are we teaching our children through it?
All Hallows’ Even and Contemporary Christianity
Although the pagan cult of witches, devils, dry bones, oversized cats, or other images continue to dominate the environment, the Church should engage the culture as it did centuries ago. All Hallows’ Eve can be restored to its religious meaning as a better alternative to what we have today.
Today in some dioceses, children of grade school ages are encouraged to combine a celebration of All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day.
With the help of parents, teachers, and/or catechists, they can find success stories of the Judeo-Christian heritage to imitate. Their stories include: kings and queens, biblical heroes, Indian and American saints, teen-aged saints, founders of religious orders, and modern-day martyrs who have suffered for their faith in persecuted lands all over the world. With assistance, children can dress up like the saint of their choice. The list is endless. It could be King David, Queen Esther, or Ruth of the Hebrew Scriptures. Others might include St. Kateri Tekawitha, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, St. Martin de Porres, St. Maria Goretti, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, St. John Bosco, and St. Pierre Toussant.
Children should be encouraged to dress up like their own sainted grandparents or other deceased family members. Then, if asked what they are doing and why, they will have a strong and richly-based reason to offer the inquirer.
Today, our youth look to the social and sports super-stars as role models. If Yankee fans wear Derek Jeter shirts, the Church has her own costumes to boast of and worthy of our imitation. The Church desires that through in the course of the liturgical year, all of us, young and not-so-young, celebrate not only the mysteries of Jesus and the Mother of God but also the feasts of the saints in heaven. It is these saints whose lives exemplify what success stories really mean. By studying their lives and by imitating them, we have our own spiritual super-stars and the ultimate success stories who have a message to all of us, a message that is of life in Christ.
On All Hallows’ Eve, children can be taught to view their costumes as baptismal robes and as symbols of a kingly and priestly people. St. John Chrysostom taught newly baptized Christians that the baptismal robe is an outward sign of the Christian’s inner beauty. (“Baptismal Instructions,” 1:34; 4:17-18; 6:11; 11:6-7) To sophisticates, this practice may seem quaint, but this catechesis grounds children in the life of the Church, always a better alternative to mindless practices.
A Thumbnail Theology on All Hallows' Eve, All Saints' and All Souls' Day
The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy states that “in the earthly liturgy, we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the Holy City of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims … ” (No. 8; Apoc 21: 2; Col: 3,1; Heb: 8,2;). The phrase, “the heavenly Liturgy” occurs repeatedly in the liturgies of the Eastern Churches, but, the Latin Church hardly uses the phrase. In the West, the emphasis is placed on building up this world and seems to be uncomfortable with the transcendent image, preferring to see things in a practical, temporal, and less symbolic way. Jean Corbon, the noted theologian and ecumenist makes three important points about the present world’s relation to the next.
1. Our focus should never be entirely on the temporal. “To do this is to be a practical secularist or escaping from it (pietism).” (“The Wellspring of Worship,” 62, no. 11) Whatever we do in this world has consequences for the next, and we cannot separate this life from the next. There is a final judgment.
Those who have gone before us have exemplified how to live a saintly life.
They may be in another place, but they are still a living part of the Church in glory and the Church being purified. The earthly city and the heavenly city interpenetrate each other, but faith is necessary to recognize this mystery.
2. The next world represents the fullness and completion of time.
3. To ignore the next world is to situate ourselves prior to the Resurrection, into an empty faith. The kingdom of God is neither completely here in the present nor completely there in the future. The kingdom of God is here and there, both-and.
For Catholics, All Hallows’ Eve recalls that the Church on earth is only one part of the Body of Christ with the other two breaking in to our memories, our imaginations, our minds and hearts. This religious celebration is a far richer way to spend the last day of the beautiful month of October that ushers in the month of remembering.