The confluence of the rambunctious American ritual of Halloween with the somber and sobering feast days of All Saints and All Souls that follow on its heels has always been confusing to me — never more so than when I was a child. Halloween ranked second to Christmas for the near-hysteria of our anticipation.
The thrill of dressing up to be something scary was delicious, especially so because, as the smallest and youngest member of my large Catholic family, I was much more experienced at being scared than being scary. Halloween allowed me to become the monster. This, no doubt, is at the heart of its hold over us. We’re able to put on the clothing of that which frightens us: darkness and death itself.
As the observance approached this year, I did a little research to remind myself of the roots of these rituals and observations: Halloween, or Hollow’s Eve, marks the night before All Saints’ Day, which falls on November 1st. Generally, it’s thought that the Solemnity of All Saints can be traced to the eighth century and was meant to honor the early Christian martyrs and, more broadly, all of the saints who have died and gone to heaven, or, as the Catholic Church would say, have attained the beatific vision.
All Souls’, which follows on November 2nd, is a day reserved for the rest of the dead — those who died in a state of sin and are being purified by the cleansing flames of Purgatory.
This observance began, some believe, in the eleventh century when, the story goes, it was reported to the Bishop of Cluny by a pilgrim returning from the Holy Land that he had met a hermit who heard the demons in Purgatory complaining that the intercessory prayers Christians said for their deceased shortened their time there. These days of the dead are commonly believed to be timed to ancient harvest festivals that marked the onset of winter, including the Celtic samhain and other earth-based pagan festivals.
There is something deeply intuitive about these festivals of the dead, coming as they do when the earth itself is preparing for its long slumber, the days are growing short and the night ever deeper. The idea of praying for, and tending one’s dead is ancient and universal.
For me, the concept of Purgatory is one I spent a lot of time with in my youth — pre-Vatican II, we were not only allowed but encouraged to say prayers for indulgences — a sign of the cross, spoken aloud, worked 100 days off one’s future Purgatory sentence, and I found it easy and quite satisfying to rip through several dozen signs of the cross in the occasional unoccupied moment. Of course no one could tell me what those 100 days meant, relative to Purgatory time, so I never felt I got ahead of the game. But I tried, even as I suspected there was something a little too easy about the practice.
More deeply puzzling, was reconciling the little witch I became on Halloween with the girl who sat piously in the pew for early Mass the next day.
(body photo: Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images)