Several years ago, I wrote a little essay on Halloween called "The Drama of Hallowmas." Hallowmas was a term I stumbled on in my (admittedly kind of hasty) research for this commissioned piece, an old name for the feast, or Mass, of All Saints, though I don't remember now where I saw it, or whether in fact it refers to more than one day. I do happen to see not a Triduum here, exactly, in the Eve of All Hallows, All Saints Day itself, and All Souls -- that's elevating things to a level of significance which I don't think universally exists -- but a kind of triptych, a series of potent and even iconic images which, to my mind, packs a serious catechetical wallop.
And there's the important qualifier: to my mind. Every year, it seems, somebody writes a Catholic apologetic for Halloween; three years ago, I was writing a Catholic apologetic for Halloween. And every year, people object, on more or less the following grounds (pointedly leaving out the Halloween is Satanic grounds, to which my response is merely No, it isn't):
1. People who celebrate Halloween -- publicly, in writing -- along with the rest of the post-pagan world make people who dress up in saint costumes feel like weirdos. This is mean and backstabby, coming from Catholics who ought to be supporting each other.
Well, okay. For my own part, I certainly didn't mean to be mean and backstabby, and I was taken aback -- actually, rather hurt -- by the vehemence of responses, by people whom I'd considered friendly homeschooling-forum acquaintances, to my own article, which I'd written first of all because it was a paid journalistic assignment I'd accepted because we needed whatever money I could make by writing, but also because . . . well, sometimes people who do celebrate Halloween with the rest of the post-pagan world feel rather alone in the sea of virtuous saint costumes. And it's not that we don't also dress up as saints -- we just do it on All Saints. Or, as is the case this year, on November 3rd, which is when our parish All Saints party happens. On Halloween, we do Halloween, for a variety of reasons beginning with the fact that of the American customs my then-not-Catholic children missed while we lived in England, Halloween trick-or-treating was at the top of the list. And ending with . . . well, the second objection, which is
2. People who celebrate Halloween publicly and in writing are distorting the Catholic faith for their own ends. They are claiming a Catholic baptism for things which are not inscribed in Catholic doctrine or tradition. In effect, these people are liars.
I've done a lot of thinking about this charge, which I hadn't really anticipated as I wrote my essay and which was the accusation that really stung. If I had anticipated it, I might have said this: There's a difference between claiming that you're doing a given thing because it is Catholic, and explaining that you're doing it for Catholic reasons. In hindsight I wish that I had considered this aspect of things more fully, because I would have said it more explicitly (which I think would have been far more helpful than simply qualifying what I'd said by some disclaimer that this is what my family does, but no other family is bound to do it).
There are, after all, plenty of events in our public life which have no direct, inscribed place in Catholic doctrine or tradition. Voting in elections, for example, has a fairly short and tangential pedigree in any religious tradition, and yet we don't abstain -- I suspect that most of us will vote next Tuesday, and that we will be voting not because voting is some kind of side-sacrament, or because it's meaningless fun, but because as Catholics, and for Catholic reasons, we view it as a duty. Likewise, I suspect that most of us will celebrate Thanksgiving, not because it's a Catholic feast (my parish doesn't offer Mass on Thanksgiving, though many do), but also not because it's just meaningless family fun, like a trip to Disney World. We'll celebrate it, I suspect, because it is Catholic, as well as catholic, to offer thanks to God by celebrating His gifts to us, and especially by celebrating the gift of our gathered families. Wherever a Catholic sun doth shine, after all. And actually, now that I think of it, if I had time, and if I'd actually ever been to Disney World with my family, I suppose I could also argue that one might have Catholic reasons for doing that, too.
So I think what I was trying to explain, and what I'd cheerfully explain again, is that we do Halloween the way we do not because we think it's just meaningless fun. The minute meaningless enters the game, we're in trouble. As Catholics and (hopefully) thinking people, we try not to do things meaninglessly, especially where our children are concerned. On the other hand, we don't do Halloween the way we do because we think it's a dogma waiting to be defined. It is not, contra the hyperbolic John Zmirak, a high holy day, and we know that. We do it the way we do -- with goofy costumes and pumpkins and trick-or-treating in the dark -- because we think that this experience, and the images of it our children carry with them, is a rich thing as a memory, as a significant family tradition in the unfolding of this season, and as a kind of mental icon, playing out the story of salvation.
Do I think everyone has to do it this way? Nope. I also don't think everyone has to have a Jesse Tree to have observed Advent. None of these things are mandates. The only mandates, in fact, have to do with sacraments, settled doctrine, and the Deposit of Faith; everything else is icing. I simply offer my take on this public observance in response to the saint costumes, which are, while good and lovely, rather emphatically not the only valid Catholic way to think about Halloween.
So: Tonight we'll go to the Vigil Mass, because I'm singing and other people are serving and reading. Then we'll come home and morph into a clown (or a cowgirl, or a cowgirl rodeo clown, we're not sure which) and Aragorn -- the teenager currently at home says he's too old this year and is happy to answer our door to trick-or-treaters -- and take off into the night with a gang of neighbor kids.
Tomorrow we'll go to Mass again, because we always go to daily Mass on Thursdays, and then hiking with friends who also take the day off school.
Friday is the at-home teenager's birthday, which he will spend at his new job cleaning the biology labs at the college. Hopefully he can also pop over to the monastery graveyard for a prayer; meanwhile, those of us staying home will visit one of our town's graveyards. No school again.
And then Saturday we'll revisit All Saints with our parish party, always a huge hit. So far we have St. Teresa of Avila . . . the boys are still debating, though the ten-year-old generally goes as St. Michael.
And that -- if I may invoke the term again -- is our Hallowmas, for better or worse, but never for no reason.