>Recently The Courtier had the pleasure of dining at an out-of-the-way Capitol Hill boîte with two friends, younger Catholic gentlemen of the “vast Right Wing conspiracy” variety. Over the course of the evening and several excellent dishes, numerous topics were raised and discussed, from usus antiquior liturgy to the upcoming mid-term elections to urban forestry. One of said conversations involved the question of how Catholics should mark Halloween, particularly in light of a recent statement by the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales suggesting that Catholic parents should have their children dress up as saints instead of monsters, and avoid creepy decorations. The Courtier welcomes his readers’ opinions on this subject, should they wish to comment on this blog, but he hopes that his readers will indulge his wanting to raise a few points on this topic.
While agreeing that some aspects of Halloween can go too far, on the whole The Courtier would argue that many aspects brought to the forefront at Halloween are not only very ancient and based on sensible considerations of the human condition, but in measured doses actually healthy for children rather than otherwise. Ultimately it is the responsibility of parents – not the Church, nor government, nor schools, nor society – to ensure that children are properly brought up and educated, and those institutions which exist to provide aid and guidance to the rearing of children are supports, not substitutions for parental involvement.
Take for example, the practice of trick-or-treating. While only having become commonplace in America in the preceding century, this traditional aspect of Halloween not only has commonalities in other parts of the world, but is in fact of very ancient lineage. The medieval custom of “souling”, which was particularly popular in the British Isles but spread over much of Europe as well, involved the baking of special sweet cakes for the dead, made of ingredients such as cinamon and raisins, which were presented to children or to the poor who would come and knock on the door on Hallowmas (Halloween) night, and performed a song or said a prayer for the dead. In fact, Shakespeare mentions the practice in “The Two Gentlemen of Verona”:
Go to, sir: tell me, do you know Madam Silvia?
She that your worship loves?
Why, how know you that I am in love?
Marry, by these special marks: first, you have
learned, like Sir Proteus, to wreathe your arms,
like a malcontent; to relish a love-song, like a
robin-redbreast; to walk alone, like one that had
the pestilence; to sigh, like a school-boy that had
lost his A B C; to weep, like a young wench that had
buried her grandam; to fast, like one that takes
diet; to watch like one that fears robbing; to
speak pulling, like a beggar at Hallowmas.
- William Shakespeare
The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act II Scene 1
Today of course, American children are given candy as a matter of course when they ring the bell. However The Courtier’s proposal to his dining companions was that the practice ought to be interpreted differently in the instruction of one’s children. If children are rewarded for choosing not to do something evil – like throw eggs or soap windows – they will learn that it is better to be good than to be bad.
The complaint from the bishops that things have gotten out of hand is in fact, nothing new at all. For example in the Middle Ages the festival known as the “Burial of the Sardine” in Spain, involved a mock funeral of a – well, fish, with people dressed in costumes and generally behaving with abandon. It infuriated the bishops over the years, and in fact at various points was banned by local authorities. A very famous painting by the great Spanish artist Francisco de Goya, reproduced below and now in the Royal Academy in Madrid, was completed during the transitional phase of his career into his “Black Paintings”; it shows an example of the typical wildness and scariness of the day, hearkening back to earlier imagery of peasant revelry by artists such as Bruegel and Bosch.
With respect to the scary aspects of Halloween, it must be said that society has developed a rather unhealthy attitude toward depictions of either suffering or the infernal: it has either become completely gratuitous and senseless (e.g. “slasher films”), or it has been completely sanitized and removed from view. In early times of course, the Church made a point of commissioning art that would show the faithful what would happen if they did not repent from their sins. Look at the Romanesque and Gothic churches that dot Europe, and notice how often the Devil and his cohorts make an appearance, as a stern warning to those who continue down the wrong path. They are to be found devouring souls atop column capitals, on entrance portals, in altarpieces and stained-glass windows, and in choir stalls.
In The Courtier’s opinion Southern Mediterranean Catholics have always had a healthier view of such things, perhaps because they have a more realistic view of sin, suffering and death as a part of everyday life. Crucifixes and portrayals of Christ’s Passion in American and British churches, for example, more often than not seem to be devoid of any real depiction of suffering. A blond, blue-eyed Nordic Jesus looks as though he has just had a shower and smells of talcum powder, rather than being beaten and covered in blood and sweat; indeed the blood, if it is even visible, is merely a small daub or smear here and there. Certainly things can go too far in the opposite direction, as can sometimes be seen in art from Latin America, but on the whole Americans and our cousins across the pond are more in favor of a sanitized, Protestant-looking Christ.
Similarly, The Courtier cannot recall the last time he went into an American church built in the post-conciliar period and saw a representation of the Devil, the damnation of souls, or even something so much as an imp. Hell is a real place, and not a theological construct (much as the Jesuits tried to convince The Courtier otherwise.) The Church does not know who is in Hell, but we know for a fact that there are souls there, and they will be joined by others as time proceeds.
The anemia which seems to have gripped much of the Church since the middle of the last century has yielded what can only be described as a weak, wimpy, and languid attitude toward the depiction of salvation and what St. Paul (no shrinking violet) called “the wages of sin”. Catholics from bishops to priests to the laity seem to have become so focused on the Mercy of God that, great as that Mercy is, they have forgotten that God has also promised us that He is coming back to separate the sheep from the goats. This is a deliberate, intentional, and active act of permanent separation which God will perform: Christ does not lie, and if He tells us there is to be wailing and gnashing of teeth, Catholics desperately need to be reminded of that.
By way of conclusion, The Courtier does not mean to suggest that everyone should dress up their children (or themselves) as vampires, ghouls, and so on; in fact this weekend The Courtier will be dressed as an historical figure. The choice of a child’s costume should be made or approved by his or her parents, and the eschewing of particularly gruesome garb is a good idea. At the same time however, allowing children capable of a degree of reason to not only see but be frightened by the infernal, provided the proper guidance, will provide a teaching opportunity.
Human beings are visual creatures. On the whole, unless we have achieved a level of spirituality along the lines of the Trappists, we need sight aids in envisioning theological concepts. Children need to understand that Hell is real, and that they need to avoid Hell at all costs. Halloween is a great opportunity to teach this lesson, and to follow it up with the celebration honoring all of the people who have made it to Heaven, encouraging children to strive for that goal as well, allows the chance to pass from darkness into light.
In other words, parents and friends, bring out the giant fuzzy spiders, the jack-o-lantern, the crepe paper, and make sure there are plenty of Hershey’s products at the door, because you never know whether The Courtier and his retinue may be stopping by this Halloween.
The Burial of the Sardine by Francisco de Goya, c. 1816
Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid