The Way of BeautyHallowe’en, Halloween, and the call to sainthood

It is not generally known that, until 1955, Hallowe’en was listed on the Church’s liturgical calendar. Today, Halloween, as it is spelled and widely understood, has morphed into a major secular holiday that is anticipated by mid-October or before.  In sales, it rivals those of Christmas. The public is barraged with images of diabolical and cruel evil spirits or monstrous creatures that wreak havoc everywhere they go, and with the ubiquitous colors of orange and black.  The social media run the gamut to show their fascination with Halloween from the light-hearted trick-or-treating to ghoulish expressions.  Men and women suit themselves up to imitate famous people. One day of fun can pass harmlessly if the history of the day is also explained to children who are curious about the origins of customs.

Pagan Origins of Hallowe’en
 
Hundreds of years before Christ, Druid tribes, 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.  By contrast, in Rome, the feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and gardens, sounded a happier note.  Celebrated on November 1,  it was the custom to eat or give away fruits, and especially apples.

The Christian Celebration of Hallowe’en

From the seventh- or eighth century in Ireland and Great Britain, perhaps as a remnant of Druid practices, October 31 came to be known as the eve of All Hallows, the eve of All Saints’ Day.  The end of October marked the end of the fall harvest and the beginning of the dreary winter months.  By the eleventh century, the day after All Saints’ was named All Souls’ Day, dedicated to the commemoration of all the departed faithful.  The two feasts follow each other on November 1 and November 2, respectively.  Until 1955, All Hallows Eve (All Hallows Even[ing]) was linked to the two feast days. The faithful were reminded of their own call to sainthood as well as the reality of death and the departed souls in Purgatory.  They prayed for the dead whose prayers they sought.
 
One description of the day reads as follows: “Late in the evening in the country parishes, after supper was over, the housewives would spread a clean cloth on the table, set out pancakes and curds, and cider.  And after the fire was banked and chairs set round the table for the returning loved ones, the family would recite Psalm 129,” the De Profundis (“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord) and then go to bed” (Mary Reed Newland, The Year and Our Children, 270-78).
 
The English custom of knocking at 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” or 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.”

Eventually, a variation on the soul cake came about.  To remind people that life on earth was but a transitory reality, a hole was carved out of the middle of the cake so that those who ate the cake were reminded of eternity.  Thus, the birth of the doughnut.
 
Later on, charades, pantomime, and mini-dramas developed on the reality of life after death and the means of attaining salvation.  With the remembrance of a saintly life came images of evil—goblins, witches, and cats, ancient symbols of the devil.  The familiar and seasonal harvest fruits such as apples, cornstalks and pumpkins were still given out to beggars.  Christian art depicted death by skulls and bones.

The Devil in Classical Music
 
On October 31, “Danse Macabre,” by Camille Saint-Saëns is played on classical radio stations as a musical recalling of evil spirits.  The so-called devil’s interval, an augmented 4th (a diminished 5th), is sounded throughout the piece.  Even today, this ‘sinister’ interval is an error in composition and is to be avoided.  Moreover, the now-defunct chant Sequence of the dead, the “Dies Irae,” can be heard embedded in compositions that quote its first musical line.  One such piece is Rachmaninoff’s popular, “Variations on a Theme by Paganini.”

October 31: A Saint Fest
 
At the end of beautiful October days, both November 1 and 2 continue to form part of the consciousness of the full and complete Body of Christ, the Church on earth.  In recent years, parishes have encouraged children of grade school age to combine a celebration of All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day.  They have made October 31 a saint fest. With the help of parents, teachers, or catechists, they find success stories from the Judeo-Christian heritage.  Such stories include lives of kings and queens, biblical heroes, saints from the various countries and continents, many of whom have suffered martyrdom for their faith.  Children dress up like saints of their choice or even like their own grandparents.
 
Today, our young people look up to super-stars in the social and sports media as role models and are often let down.  Let us not forget that the Church is proud of her own super-stars.  Throughout the course of the liturgical year, she desires us to celebrate not only the mysteries of Jesus and the Mother of God but also the feasts of the saints in heaven who have set before the world examples of holiness.  By studying their lives and by imitating them, our own spiritual super-stars proclaim the greatest and most important message of all—holiness of life and a happy life.
 
It is time to rediscover the meaning of Hallowe’en and celebrate it in anticipation of All Saints’- and All Souls’ Day. Our secularized culture makes this exceedingly difficult to do unless diocesan and parochial church leaders promote October 31  as ‘a saint fest.’ We close this reflection with a poem on the beauty of October days by Joseph Thomas Nolan:

For autumn and the leaves of death
We give you thanks, O Lord, and seek to praise
Those northern lands that can be a glory,
And men and women at peace find rest from empty fields
And spilling barns.  We thank you for abundant days,
For all the richer life your Son has promised,
More than eye, taste, and even autumn can provide.

And present things:  books, faces, friends’ return,
The fire’s dance, the shouts of play,
The scarlet maple and the distant hills.
Your gift is like a wine,
Pressed down and running over,
Good manners for October days.

We give you thanks for banquets and for bread,
But more, that you are he who saves
The very leaf that falls
And seeks communion with the earth.
And we are never dead,
Although we sleep and winter will return.
Gather us, O Lord: we are the sons and daughters of your desire.

Lord of the harvest,
God of the beautiful world,
We are your glory, and we give you praise.

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