I’ve had a problem with Halloween for quite awhile. If you’ve read my earlier posts about how we are becoming a culture of death rather than a culture of love, you might think that’s why. And that’s part of it. Every time I drive by the killer-clown billboard advertising the local theme park’s terrifying Halloween event I cringe and shake my head. That’s not something I want to celebrate.*
But that’s not the only reason. For all the fun, dressing up, chocolate, and gathering with friends, most of the time the entire thing has left me feeling . . . hollow. It’s like the day should be really special, but is missing something. For the longest time I didn’t know why. Now, I think I do.
Most of my holiday celebrations are connected to my Catholic faith. Christmas and Easter are obvious, but even Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, and Memorial Day are times when I pray for those who have come before me, those who have sacrificed themselves for the liberties I enjoy, and to thank God for all of my many blessings.
Ostensibly, I knew that Halloween was in some way related to my faith. I knew Catholics went to
mass on November 1st because it’s a Holy Day of Obligation: All Saints Day. But it wasn’t until I was talking to my husband that I understood that “Halloween” comes from “Hallow”-“een”–“Hallow” meaning “Holy,” and “een” slang for the word “eve.” This is why it’s sometimes called “All Hallow’s Eve,” the night before the feast of the Holy ones, the saints.
I did some research, and things became clearer. Father Steve Grunow, in an article for Word on Fire, explains that Halloween follows in the tradition of all Christian holy days which, in the past, began at sundown the night before. Those evenings were commemorated by masquerades and feasting. Fr. Grunow draws parallels to Mardi Gras (a festival that happens on the eve of Ash Wednesday), explaining that a Mardis Gras type of party happened the night before all major feast days. Those nights were full of “excess and tomfoolery”** and so running around in masks and eating candy on Halloween makes sense. It should be as much a day of pre-partying as Mardis Gras, or Christmas Eve.
The key here, though, is the word “pre.” For Catholics like me, All Hallow’s Eve was never supposed to be an end in and of itself. The candy and the masquerading were the celebrations preceding the feast. In much the same way as Christmas Eve would make no sense to me without understanding Christmas as the celebration of the birth of Christ, Halloween seemed empty because I didn’t really understand the meaning of the next day, the actual feast day, November 1st.
The meaning of All Saints’ Day became clearer to me when my pastor said, in a sermon on All Saints’ Day, “This day is so important because we are here to celebrate all of those before us who have become saints, in the hopes that some day we will also be saints.”
I chuckled. Yeah. Me. A saint. My pastor continued. “You do realize that if you are in heaven, you are a saint, right?”
My mind just stuttered. He continued. “Catholics believe that all people who choose God, who choose to follow God’s path for their lives, and who enter heaven are saints. They may not be canonized like St. Matthew or St. Elizabeth, but they are still saints. Our faith honors the saints as examples of people who lived lives devoted entirely to God. They are models we can follow, and on All Saints’ Day we ask the saints to pray for us, that we will be able to follow God’s plan for our lives as they followed God’s plan for theirs, and so one day be in heaven with them, as saints.”
So All Saints’ Day is the day I’m supposed to celebrate the fact that I have loved ones in heaven praying for me. It’s a day set aside for me to contemplate the hope that I will one day be forever reunited with all of those I love. I can see why I might have thought Halloween was missing something. Gluttony, movies, and costumes vs. eternal joy and happiness with everyone I love? I mean, I know Halloween has the chocolate, but it’s kind of easy to choose which part of the celebration I want to focus on.
The final piece of the puzzle came to me in the Disney movie Coco.*** The movie is about a young boy named Miguel. It’s set during the celebration of El Dio de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, which is usually held around November 2nd, which Catholics call All Soul’s Day. In the movie, Miguel’s parents tell him the Day of the Dead is a time to tell stories about loved ones who have died, to keep their memory alive. The family builds an “ofrenda,” an altar, where they put photos of the departed members of their family.
Because it’s a Disney movie, Miguel gets transported to the land of the dead, where he meets his departed ancestors. They tell him that the Day of the Dead is the one day when spirits can cross over to visit with the living–if someone has their picture on their ofrenda.
Miguel meets Hector, a spirit who has never been able to cross over to the land of the living because his photo has never been put on an ofrenda. Hector asks Miguel to take a photo of him and put it on an ofrenda so that he can cross over to visit his daughter. As he speaks to Miguel, Hector starts to fade. Miguel doesn’t understand why, so Hector explains, “Memories have to be passed down by those who knew us in life and the stories they tell about us. When there is no one alive left to pass down [our] stories, [we] fade away.”
The song that runs throughout the movie says, “Remember me. Though I have to say good-bye, remember me. Don’t let it make you cry. For even if I’m far away, I hold you in my heart. I sing a secret song to you each night we are apart. Remember me. Though I have to travel far, remember me. Each time you hear a sad guitar. Know that I’m with you the only way that I can be. Until you’re in my arms again . . . Remember me.”
Coco not only brought me to tears (and still does every time I watch it), but inspired me to start some new traditions that will make my Halloween a little more meaningful. On Halloween itself, we will still dress up and eat candy. We’ll watch The Nightmare Before Christmas and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown as we hand out candy to trick-or-treaters.
But on November 1st, I’m going to ask each of us to pick a saint that we want to be our saint for the year. We’ll read about our saint and try to understand how we can incorporate his or her pursuit of holiness into our own lives. I’ll even try to write down each of our saints’ feast days so that we can do something special that day.
November 2nd, All Soul’s Day, is going to really special. I’m going to make some of our favorite family foods–or I might order pizza.
We’re Italian. It counts. We’ll eat and tell stories about family members who are no longer with us. Maybe we’ll even write some down. We’ll remember them, not just in the hope that we will be reunited with them some day, but to keep them alive in our memories right now. And yes, while we tell the stories, we’ll eat the leftover candy. I bet it will taste best that day.
*If you’re interested in reading more about this, I wrote about it awhile ago on my personal blog, http://www.masdoc.com. The post is “Fear, Itself.”
***In reading C.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy I learned there is a profound link between Catholicism and fairy tales, though not necessarily Disney ones. One day I’ll write a post about it.