I once had a neighbor who, every October, would decorate for Halloween by putting up a 12-foot-high Grim Reaper figure on his lawn — a scowling skeleton draped in a black cloak, scythe in one hand and a bony finger from the other jabbing in menace at the passing cars. Since I often managed to get stuck at the traffic light in front of this neighbor’s house, I was somewhat unnerved by the display; the skeleton always seemed to be glaring and pointing at me.
My own Halloween decorations have generally been much more subdued: instead of ghosts and ghouls, I usually just set out a few pumpkins on my porch, along with a broom — the latter not to evoke witches, but to shoo squirrels interested in eating the former. If any pumpkins are sufficiently intact by the time Oct. 31 rolls around, trick-or-treaters know to stop at my house for candy. Should the squirrels polish off the decorations and deter costumed visitors, I’m happy to eat any surplus chocolate.
Aside from the sweets, though, Halloween has always left me feeling a bit conflicted. For people of faith, the evening is simply a prelude to the Solemnity of All Saints, known in earlier times as “All Hallows Day,” hence “Hallow’s Eve” and the shorter “Hallowe’en,” with “hallow” deriving from the same Germanic root word for “holy.”
As a feast, All Saints’ Day appears to have emerged by the fourth century as a means of collectively honoring martyrs; in the eighth century, Pope Gregory III dedicated a chapel to all saints. A century later, Pope Gregory IV officially ordered the general observance of All Saints on Nov. 1.
Since most trick-or-treaters aren’t dressing up as their patron saints, Halloween traditions clearly point to a pagan origin — particularly among my ancestors, the Celts, who prior to being evangelized celebrated Samhain (“sah-win”), the most important of four quarterly festivals in their calendar. At the midpoint between the fall equinox and the winter solstice, the ancients gathered their harvest, lit a community fire and donned animal and monster disguises to frighten away malevolent spirits, whom they believed could reenter the earthly realm on Samhain.
Deceased family members were welcome, however, which gave rise to a tradition called the “dumb supper,” at which the living prepared food and invited the unseen to eat with them. Several nights of “mumming,” going door-to-door in costume and singing for snacks (the basis for trick-or-treating), led up to the big bash.
Hoping to distance All Saints from the revelry (which included quite a bit of beer and binge eating, according to some records), Pope Boniface moved the feast to May 13, but the bonfires continued and, as noted above, Pope Gregory IV reset the date to Nov. 1.
For modern faithful, an odd mix of ghoul and Gospel swirls amid the jack-o-lanterns (originally made of turnips, rather than pumpkins, by the way). Some believers soften Halloween by dialing down the gore and focusing on harvest fun, some shun the holiday outright as poisoned by paganism, and others just shrug and sink their plastic vampire fangs into a peanut butter cup.
Those candy and costume sales add up, too: retailers expect to tally a record $10.14 billion for Halloween-related merchandise, a haul that would make any trick-or-treater’s eyes widen.
Anthropologists sometimes dissect Halloween as our culture’s way of reckoning with death and darkness: evil and mortality are made cartoonish, and therefore less frightening. Freddy Krueger and his zombie pals aren’t so bad; they’re just the family from two blocks over, politely requesting M&M handouts. And not to worry if you do feel a pang of fear at their appearance: the entire Marvel Comics battalion is coming up behind them and looking for Skittles.
At once silly and scary, Halloween reminds our secularized culture that no matter how complex our technology or how crude our religious sensibilities, we wrestle shadows within and without. Through his horrific Passion, Christ reveals the full scope of the evil that haunts and destroys us — and in his Resurrection, he offers the hope that all who believe can indeed become not sorcerers or superheroes, but saints, powerful in virtue, rich in love and one with their eternal Lord.
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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