Yesterday in an online discussion with a friend in Ireland, I commented how fascinating it is to see Halloween gaining in popularity in Ireland and the United Kingsom recent years, to somewhat resemble our practices here. He (correctly) pointed out that on the contrary, from his perspective it was fascinating to see how Americans had taken some of his country’s customs and made them more popular, since many of our traditions surrounding this holiday originally came from Ireland. However regardless of the origins of the holiday, there is certainly a split of opinion in this country as to whether we even ought to celebrate it at all.
Of course as is the case with many such celebrations formerly associated with Europeans and Christianity, Americans tend to secularize such observances so as to diminish any serious lessons which might be drawn from them. Witches, zombies, vampires, and the like are people who are cursed, rather than blessed, and we are supposed to fear them, and turn away from practices and habits that lead us down the path of sin. Yet on this side of the pond, we are just as likely to dress up as one of those creatures for love of a good prank, as we are something not frightening in the least: a famous person, a member of a profession, a character from fiction, a visual pun, and so on, that makes others laugh at us and compliment how clever we are.
This Halloween, I have not made any significant effort to replicate the experience of last year, which ended up having a much wider impact for me on social media than simply dressing up for a party. Perhaps my mood is a bit more introspective this year, and I need a break from some of the silliness associated with the secular marking of this date on the Church’s calendar. For Halloween in the Christian context of course, is simply the vigil for the Feast of All Saints’ Day, November 1st. It has nothing to do with promoting the latest toys, cartoons, or comic book action heroes, and everything to do with recognizing how much we need to strive to be like the saints, and how dangerous not making that effort can be.
For those of you in Washington who are up for it, and are willing to forego tonight’s revels in lieu of something sacred rather than secular, I would urge you to attend the beautiful, candlelit Vigil of All Saints held each year at the Dominican Priory of the Immaculate Conception across the street from Catholic University. It is always very well-attended, and a beautiful commemoration of the lives of the great men and women who have gone before us in the life of the Church to their heavenly reward, led by the student friars at the Dominican House of Studies. Other church communities in your area will no doubt be holding events this evening as well, if you look for them.
If however you decide to be out and about this evening, whether on your own or with little ones or awaiting trick-or-treaters, remember that just because something looks infernal does not mean it has no value to you. After all, looking at a Goya painting or a Medieval misericord does not make you insane or demonic: it is when you cease to find such things abnormal or disturbing that you run into problems. Halloween reminds us that we are imperfect and can suffer grave consequences as a result, if we do not examine ourselves and try to do better. Thus in point of fact, this reminder of the eternal consequences of our actions can be particularly beneficial for those of us who actually do need reminding that we are flawed, fallen creatures.
It is only by being aware of what is trying to bring us down, and our trying our best to battle through such things, that we can hope to be like the saints, whom we remember on the morrow. Therefore Halloween, as I see it, can be both fun and serious, at the same time. Fun, because let’s face it: it is simply fun to dress up and pretend to be someone else once in awhile. Yet serious, in that we ought to look at the images around us and reflect on whether we are doing all we can to try and do better, all the time, rather than giving up and falling permanently into shadow. So long as we take it in that light, Halloween is nothing to be afraid of.
Predella of the Saints and Martyrs from the St. Dominic (Fiesole) Altarpiece
by Fra Angelico ( c. 1423-1424)
National Gallery, London