The Sinners Guide to Halloween

Because Would Your Read it if it Read the Saint's Guide to Halloween?

Every year I brace myself for the “It’s a pagan holiday” shtick that is the prelude to the “You know Christmas is the Roman Saturnalia?” extravaganza of pseudo-history. Look, there are 365 days in a year. That may seem like a lot, but multiply that by the number of cultures and local customs, and you are bound to find synchronicities everywhere. And even if in some areas the Catholic feast dovetails with a pagan ceremony, so what? That’s kind of the point of Christianity. God became man. The word became flesh. A sordid, silly world was redeemed. Not rejected. Not discarded and replaced with something entirely new. Water is still water. But it also can become an instrument of grace. Sacramental reality.

Anyone with a modest desire for historical objectivity can figure out that the modern atheist who loves to point at the pagan foundations of Halloween is extraordinarily parochial. On a scale from 1 to 10, I grade it’s historical accuracy as “History Channel Ancient Aliens”. We begin with the MacGuffin of a Celtic festival and somehow posit it as the raison d’etre of Roman ritual. From our Anglo-American perspective, it’s hard sometimes to recall just how little thought French abbots, Spanish Dominicans, and Roman popes, that is, those who established the dates for All Souls’ and All Saints’, gave to the country customs of the Irish.

At the same time, there are those Catholics who get flustered at all this historical cheating and end up taking their ball and going home. And as frustrating as the cheater may be, we condemn the actions of the spoilsport even more. Look at it this way, we touch such a fundamental nerve by commemorating the dead that even the neo-pagans of today respond with enthusiasm to our holiday. They just need a little correction to get to the real meaning of the celebration.

As common sense would tell us, the celebration of All Saints’ and All Souls’ did not start in 33 AD. It took time for both to develop but by the end of the 11th cent. AD, both had moved to their current dates of November 1st and November 2nd. All Saints’ had various iterations and various dates as the number of martyrs, due to relentless persecutions with and without official imperial approval, outgrew the number of days in the year. We hear of it being celebrated on the current date in Rome under Gregory III in the 8th century AD, but it was Gregory VII (1073-1085) who fixed November 1st as All Souls’ for the universal Church. Coincidentally, only a couple decades before Gregory VII established November 1st for All Saints’, St. Odilo, the abbot of Cluny in France, established the local custom of celebrating a feast of All Souls’ on November 2nd. The practice gradually spread from there, and by the 15th century, we find Spanish Dominicans being granted special privileges to celebrate extra Masses for the intentions of the faithfully departed.

And before we had headless Hessians running around the New York countryside, there was St. Marcellus, decapitated martyr whose feast we celebrate on October 30th. The four days from St. Marcellus to All Souls’, then, had their weird mixture of joyful and grim centuries before Puritans started mutilating pumpkins on the Massachusetts’ Bay. In fact, you can even see traces of the extended ghoulish celebration in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”. The ghost of the elder Hamlet appears starting at the feast of St. Marcellus and it is on the night of All Souls’ that the young prince meets the ghost of his father who has this to say:

But that I am forbid

To tell the secrets of my prison-house,

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word

Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,

Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,

Thy knotted and combined locks to part

And each particular hair to stand on end,

Like quills upon the fretful porpentine:

But this eternal blazon must not be

To ears of flesh and blood. -Hamlet Act I Scene V

See? Even young Danes enjoy a campfire scare.

But what are we as Catholics then to do with Halloween? Are we to sanitize it all into All Saints’ parties for the kids? Should we start a “Reason for the Season” campaign with bumper stickers to judgingly condemn our neighbors’ secularized ghosts and goblins?

Here, I think my 4 year old has found the right Catholic wisdom. As we walk through our neighborhood, looking for “spooky” houses, he likes to tell me about Halloween and what it will be like. “Bad guys come out on Halloween. But don’t be scared, I’ll dead them.” A simple sentence, but one that many adults would have a hard time formulating without a cascade of qualifying addenda. Bad guys exist. Satan exists. And his greatest accomplishment of late has been to obscure this simple fact. Evil does parade around in silly costumes, it disguises itself. On Halloween, our costumes serve to call out evil, by disguising ourselves, we unmask a basic fact that is too often hidden in plain sight. Evil exists, but so does Good. And good defeats evil. There is nothing to fear of Halloween, and you don’t have to dress up only as a superhero, a saint, or an angel.

And just to remind you why you shouldn’t be scared, I’ll quote Hamlet again, as he tells Horatio and the watchmen why he is not scared of the ghost:

Why, what should be the fear?

I do not set my life in a pin&s fee;

And for my soul, what can it do to that,

Being a thing immortal as itself?

What we should fear is a community without this sense of ultimate purpose, of the struggle between good and evil. We are made for more than this life. So get out there, dressed as a saint or a sinner. Our lukewarm world needs the existence of both brought before its eyes.

P.S. Some candy and alcohol pairings. N.B. In almost no instance do I actually recommended splaying out your child’s candy and consoling yourself with the recommended beverage in the pretentious fashion of alternating nips with sips. Obviously you gorge on candy first and then drink responsibly.

Peanut M&Ms + Stout

Swedish Fish or Sour Patch Kids + Belgian wheat

Twizzlers + Gin&Tonic

Kit Kat + IPA

Butterfinger + Old Fashioned

Skittles + Pilsner

Almond Joy + Mint Julep

Reese’s + Irish Ale

Candy Corn. Stop. You’ve either eaten too much candy, or drunk too much. Put the candy corn down, brush your teeth a few dozen times and call it a night.