Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween; or, Okay, So I Didn't Choose That Title . . .

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.


Jennifer Gregory Miller said...

I loved your original article, especially the term Holymas. I also view the Halloween, All Saints, and All Souls as connected. Triptych is a great visual! Triduum might be a little presumptuous, but even that term works. The days all build on each other.

Growing up my mother was anti-Halloween, with all the negative ideas. It's taken a while for me to see that you can embrace simple secular pleasures (like you said, Thanksgiving). We avoid the scary and gore. Things that remind us OUR death ties in these days.

In my mind, it's the Mystical Body. Halloween celebrates or focuses on the Church Militant--preparing for the other two feasts, All Saints is Church Triumphant, and All Souls is Church Suffering.

I'm just rambling, but I do see the anti-Halloween is really Puritanism. We're Catholics!

Sally Thomas said...

Yes, I like that Church Militant thought . . . the Church Militant thumbs its nose at the Gates of Hell, which cannot prevail against it.

Funny how our childhood experiences form our parenting decisions, one way or another. I grew up "doing" Halloween and loving it, though there was never any more to it than superficial costumes and ghosties, which nobody took seriously. Some of my favorite childhood picture books were about very gentle little witches and ghosts, which I suppose some would argue were forms of soft satanic propaganda, but if they were, they sure didn't take with me.

I *might* have been tempted not to do Halloween with my kids -- for all I've written about it, it's not a holiday I can't live without -- except that of course we took our youngest trick-or-treating when she was small, because it was what EVERYONE, even all the Mormons in Salt Lake, did. It would never have occurred to me not to. And then in England she missed doing that. And then, by the time we were becoming Catholic, she was already a teenager, and I can just envision her response, and therefore that of her 4-years-younger brother, had I told them that this year, kids, we were all going as our favorite saints. Uh, mutiny, they would have said.

And then, all the Catholic homeschoolers we met at the start of our journey loved Halloween. It was refreshing to realize that there were religious homeschoolers out there for whom this wasn't a tortured issue -- before we began our journey into the Church, the only homeschoolers (besides ourselves) we had known well and hung out with were non-religious/Wiccan-ish, and obviously they had no problem with Halloween, whereas all the Protestant homeschoolers (whom we didn't know well anyway, because we really didn't fit in) did. This was a moment of, "Whew, Christianity *is* big and free after all." Like everything else about Catholicism, it was heady and exciting, like being let out of prison.

I have one Catholic homeschooling-mother friend who adores Halloween -- every year on Facebook she posts this (to me) completely gruesome picture of herself and a friend all in zombie makeup and streaming with blood. Not really my cup of tea, but I don't think her way of having fun with the day in any way compromises her faith. At any rate, that's certainly not my call to make. And I don't take it as a slap at me, either, with my relative squeamishness.

It is funny that I've written about this at all, because I don't really *love* Halloween, except that it seems part of this time of year, and not to observe it, especially in terms of giving out candy, really seems un-neighborly. But I have thought a lot about how being a Catholic doesn't so much mean that you just do Catholic things, as that the things you do you do for Catholic reasons. And that you don't do things thoughtlessly, thinking that they mean nothing at all, that they're sort of de-germified fun.

Anne-Marie said...

I'm with you. Just before typing this, I sent a guerilla, a swordsman, and two witches on their merry way around the neighbourhood. To me Halloween is like Valentine's Day--it has religious roots but you can enjoy the current secular fruit without having to get all intense about the religious roots. And you can do so while avoiding the overboard secular manifestations such as demonic costumes or contraception festivals.

Anne-Marie said...

What I find really lame are the so-called Harvest Festivals that some of the local Protestant churches put on. The kids dress up and get candy and play in moon bounces, and as far as I can tell there's nothing to do with any harvest--which in any case is pretty minimal here in the trim suburbs. It's as if Jews invented a Papa Hannukah in a blue suit who came down the chimney to bring presents.

Jan said...

How can you not love the day before Christmas season starts? ;-)

Sally Thomas said...

OK, Jan, I'm glad I wasn't eating a pixie stick just now. Peanutbutter's a little harder to spray.

For what it's worth, my kids are out in a mixed group -- I sent a clown, Aragorn, and a guy in a coat and tie who wasn't going to trick-or-treat, but then changed his mind. Fortunately he didn't have to change out of his Mass clothes. A little while earlier he'd answered the door to some trick-or-treaters, and they had asked him what he was -- Harry Potter or something? I suggested that he say that he was going as an upright young mang, but he decided he was a college professor instead.

So, they're trick-or-treating in company with St. Tarcissius, St. Francis-or-Anthony, a generic priest, , a six-year-old calling himself Mouse-zilla, a pixie, and Dr. Who.

Sally Thomas said...

Also for what it's worth, it's not that I don't realize that some people dress up as horrible things and do horrible things on Halloween -- that the character of it, as a holiday of the night and with the element of fantasy, does not foreclose on the possibility of its appropriation for evil.

But then I consider that there are people who steal hosts from churches to perform Black Masses, and that that appropriation doesn't make the host evil, or the church -- just the people and their chosen actions. Where innocent things happen, evil stands close at hand looking for the opportunity to corrupt. What we can choose, as Christians, is to laugh in its face -- not to do it the honor of fearing that it will have anything to do with us.

The kids and I were talking about this in the car on the way home from Mass, and I asked them: if you worship something and hold it in reverence, you don't dress up as your object of worship for a lark (though it is kind of a lark to dress up as saints on All Saints -- but somehow that seems like a holy lark, and we don't worship the saints in any case, just try to put on some of their holiness).

So if the charge against Halloween is that it's Satan worship -- well, there may be serious Satan-worship out there, but it's not being practiced by Catholic kids in costumes running around in the dark with bags of candy. That would seem like the antithesis of worship . . .

Sally Thomas said...

Upright young *man*, not mang. In case you were wondering what a mang was, and why it would be wearing a coat and tie.

Sally Thomas said...

And it was our oldest we took trick-or-treating when we lived in Salt Lake, not our youngest, whose birth was still eight or nine years in the future when we were doing all this Utah trick-or-treating. I do not know what has gone whackado with my brain tonight (unless it's the red dye #whatever).

Lindsay said...

I, too, loved your original article, and I felt like most of the criticisms involved putting words in your mouth that you did not say, but I suppose that is neither here nor there.

We carved pumpkins, dressed up, visited one elderly neighbor and had wine and appetizers with the older bachelor professor neighbor and his colleague. It was a fun evening if not terribly traditional, though perhaps we are establishing our own traditions in this regard.

Sally Thomas said...

That sounds like so much fun. One of the things I do really like about Halloween is the neighborhood/neighborly aspect of it, though this is really compromised these days by the fact that people don't *walk* any more, but drive from house to house, which is so lame . . . and makes things that much less safe for everyone who is walking.

But I do like that I see people from the neighborhood whom I don't ordinarily see, since we're kind of on the edge of our sector of town, with a community college right across the street. My kids are abroad in the neighborhood and see other kids, but I often don't see them or their parents. So it's fun to connect, and I'd hate to be the dark, unfriendly house (though we were dark and unfriendly early in the evening because we were at Mass -- we had far fewer trick-or-treaters this year, starting late as we did, but then my husband said it was all kind of thin out there in the streets, maybe because it was the middle of the week).

The kids we got were mostly really small. I don't think we had any groups of teenagers, which was unusual and also kind of a relief, though I've never had anyone be rude to me. Some years ago, though, my younger children were handing out candy, and one bigger kid took advantage of their powerlessness to take half the bowl for himself . . . This year it was all very cute, polite tinies. And a lot of Frankenmoms. I don't much like dressing up in costume myself, unless it's for a play, but there were LOTS of gruesomely made up moms out there last night! I guess their kids didn't find that disturbing . . .

Jan said...

it's not being practiced by Catholic kids in costumes running around in the dark with bags of candy

Exactly! My little boy wore a Darth Vadar, and my pre-teen was some sort of masked queen - and they are both good and holy children...well, they are children.

Interestingly enough, because I spent the evening with a friend in a bigger town, I bought and handed out much, much more candy as the two kids collected.

I have to say, the costumes were mostly just really cute. Little bears and Raggedy Anns, little girls wearing their big sister's cheerleading outfits. Not one Obama mask in the group of about 350 kids. Didn't president-masks used to be popular?

Weird thing? One of my eldest daughter's classmates was trick-or-treating in a suit and tie, with a young woman. He's 27!

lissla lissar said...

You know, my husband sort of dressed up as Aragorn, too- he wore the wool coat I made him which is based on Viggo Mortenson's leather duster. I don't think he wore a sword, and it's a pity he doesn't have long hair anymore, but still Aragornish.

We sent out two giant squid, a frog, and a space butterfly. The non-squids were confused. In our neighbourhood it's still normal to go door-to-door, which is what the squidoids and Aragorn did.

I've always loved dressing up, and Halloween's the only holiday where it's socially acceptable. It's been fun making my kids their costumes, and next year i'm dressing up, too.

I was dimly aware as a teenager that some Christians agonised about Halloween, but I had a confused defense of it somewhat similar to Sally's, although a little more based on "Free Candy!", plus a deep belief that as long as you put inordinate amounts of work into your costume age should be no bar to trick or treating.

Also, 'mang' is the ojibway word for loon.

Anne-Marie said...

"I've always loved dressing up, and Halloween's the only holiday where it's socially acceptable."

Lissla, you would love Cologne during Karneval season. Everybody dresses up for several days, to attend multiple parties, parades, and dances, and elaborate costumes are much admired.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

I loved the article when it originally ran and recall that I spent a lot of virtual ink defending it via email to some friends after posting a link to it to my blog. I grew up wearing costumes and trick-or-treating on Halloween and it wasn't until I was older that I was even aware that some people didn't do it. I thought they were odd. Finding out that Catholics don't do it confused me. I grew up going to Catholic school and everyone I knew went trick-or-treating.

I'm so glad we live in a neighborhood where people walk from house to house trick-or-treating just like we did when we were kids. I took two fairy princess and a construction worker to about a dozen houses nearest us. We could have gone around the block but my three-year-old might have tired and really I don't think the six and under crowd need that much candy. (Nor do I need the temptation. My resistance against chocolate is at a low since I'm pregnant.)

I love the idea of a triptych and seeing the three days as an extended contemplation of the last things.

Melanie Bettinelli said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sally Thomas said...

Well, interestingly, our parish Holy Hour last night was a Holy Hour of Reparation for . . . Halloween. In general, I have to confess that although I do see the need for reparation for all kinds of things, I really don't like these super-directed Holy Hours, which feel very intrusive to me, when what I want to do is to be still before the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, which is why I go to Holy Hour. So whenever I see those red books on the table outside the church, I'm predisposed to think, "Oh, no," though in principle I'm also generally not opposed to making reparation for various things that go on in the world.

All that to say, when Holy Hour started last night, and it became clear that Halloween was what we were making reparation for, I really thought, "Oh, no." Now,

a) I love and respect my pastor very much and give thanks daily that we have him. He is *wonderful,* and what he has done in nine years in our little podunky parish is hardly shy of miraculous. I'm grateful to have him for a confessor. In short, I want to be clear that I'm not complaining about him here or criticizing his judgment, though I'm about to try to parse my thoughts about this particular situation.

b) Said pastor made clear in his Holy Hour address that the reparation being made was, specifically, for occult activity which is said to happen on that night, and not for kiddie trick-or-treating -- though it was also suggested that the occult stuff "underlies" the supposedly harmless practices. It's this formulation that I want to pick at a little, for the sake of clarity and constructive conversation.

Here are my thoughts:

1. Conflation of Halloween with the occult is problematic in that, as I suggested in an earlier comment, evil doesn't invent. It can only stand by, waiting to corrupt some good thing which has come from God's hands. Satan did not invent Halloween as a "high holy day," or a Dark-Lord New Year, or anything of the sort, because Satan cannot make or ordain, but only appropriate. In other words, that day was God's, and ours, first, and they have appropriated it for their own ends. This is bad, obviously, and I see the need for reparation as a response to this reality, but on the other hand, it's also not our problem. Sending my kids out to celebrate the Eve of All Saints in a way that hearkens to all the medieval carnivals, mystery plays, and fasching, which have been part of the liveliness and color of Christendom for centuries, in no way implicates us, as Catholics, in occult activity, any more than receiving the Host at Mass implicates us in Black Masses, for which evil people have appropriated the Host.

(to be continued)

Sally Thomas said...

2. However, what most people hear, when the subject of Halloween and the occult comes up, is that Halloween and the occult are *inextricably* connected, as if the forces of evil *had* invented this holiday in order to snare unwitting Christians, so that if they let their children participate in Halloween at all, then they are pushing them into the arms of Satan. This is unfortunate, because it's untrue and divisive, as we have seen, and it puts those of us who let our kids trick-or-treat in the difficult and undeserved position of having to explain when we stopped being devil-worshippers. And then when we try to, everyone else feels accused of something . . . And that's when hell does laugh its bitter, unmirthful laughter.

I felt badly in particular because my kids have some neighborhood friends with whom they've trick-or-treated in years past, and I invited them to come with us this year not knowing that their parents had decided against it. I love them and respect their parental judgment, though I disagree with its premises in this instance, but boy, was that awkward. I hated that my kids put theirs on the spot, not knowing. *Why* must these things be so difficult?

Melanie Bettinelli said...

Sorry about the double post.

I lived in Salem, MA for many years where Halloween has got about as out of control as it can get. It's a bacchanalian street carnival where people come to be drunk and lewd and disorderly. It's a huge mess and a disruption to the whole community and in October I'm always glad we don't live there anymore, though in other ways I love the town. Salem also has a very public occult community-- all the bizarre associations with the witch trials. There are several local occult shops and bookstores, vampire balls and such events and frequent articles in the local paper featuring the local pagan/wiccan community. Our fellow parishioners even included a couple who were former witches and who became Catholic who give very good witness talks (and gave us a very nice Holy Family icon as a wedding present).

So I definitely get the idea of making reparation for all the occult stuff associated with the holiday; but I agree that making it into a public event at the parish doesn't quite sit right with me.

Our parish, which was located downtown in the midst of the streets that are closed to all but pedestrian traffic, does a holy hour and sometimes has done a "saint fest" with outdoor performances by Catholic musicians. It's not presented as anti-Halloween, however, but is meant to be a very public reminder of the Catholic roots of the holiday and an opportunity to reach out to people and for prayer. It was never presented as a "reparation" for the occult stuff; though in that case with all the very public face of Halloween, maybe it should have been. Unless you know for sure about specific occult events, though, it seems weird to me to assume they are happening and make general reparation for that assumed activity.

Sally Thomas said...

Wow, yes, I can see how Salem would be like that. Reminds me a bit of Glastonbury, in England, where our Cambridge parish used to go on pilgrimage -- there's the ruined monastery there, and all the Glastonbury Thorn legend, but then there's Planet New Age, which the town mostly seems to have become.

And I definitely don't mean to downplay the reality of occult practices and people's involvement in them. My husband used to work with a woman who was on the run from a Satanic group in which she had grown up -- she had to change her identity and everything, for her own protection. Apparently if they'd caught up with her they would have done unspeakable things to her (and this reminds me to pray for her, wherever she is). The demonic world *is* real. And of course one of our duties in prayer, devotion, and sacrifice is to make reparation for our own sins and those of the whole world.

I like the idea of that saint fest. Too bad our parish is way out in the country . . . trick-or-treaters aren't too likely to venture out that way! We're having our big All Saints party tomorrow night, and my kids look forward to that as much as they do Halloween, which I think is all right and proper.

steve said...

I dressed up in khakis, plaid shirt, eisenhower jacket and trucker cap and puttered around yelling "you kids get off my lawn!" It was pretty scary, just not all that unusual.