Halloween: a special night of holies, howls and fun
By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY - As Halloween nears, the little boy next door is getting excited about his costume. He changes his mind almost daily about what it will be, but with equal enthusiasm. Just picturing Joshua as a pirate or a band leader or a ghost takes me back to the Halloweens of my own childhood.
As the sun sank, the children in my neighborhood would feverishly put on makeup, and get into costumes for a long night of candy gathering. Parents, especially mothers, reminded children to wear a sweater under their witch's dress or ghostly sheets. After all, the nights at October's end could get chilly.
Baskets of candy and homemade treats stood sentinel at front doors, and delighted adults tried to guess each trick-or-treater's costume.
The kids on my block looked forward for weeks to the haunted house down the street. The mom would dress up as a witch, complete with cobwebby black robe, pointed hat with a small (rubber) bat clinging to it and a big knobby wart on the end of her nose. A black cat wound around her ankles.
The dad wore a skeleton costume, with chains dragging from his legs and wrists.
In the front yard a cauldron smoked, and a small boy dressed as a goblin danced around it, pulling his pet skunk, Shalimar, on a leash. The dry ice in the kettle was quite realistic.
We entered the barely lit house, giggling with anticipation and a shiver of trepidation.
In the gloom, surrounded by the sounds of screeches and howls, we plunged our hands into bags of chilled cooked spaghetti, whole black olives and cold, boiled chicken gizzards. We knew of course what they were, but a part of us wasn't really sure. Those cold, round, squishy things just might be eyes, right?
Candy apples and hot chocolate awaited those hardy souls who made it through the witch's lair and, of course, we all survived.
What made Halloween even more fun for those of us in Catholic schools was the All Saints Day holiday that followed. No school the next day allowed us to enjoy our candy and tummy aches more fully. It never occurred to me to wonder where the traditions came from.
When my own children were in grade school, one of them asked me about the origins of Halloween. Someone at school had said the fun day was pagan and unholy and should be banned, which upset many of the kids.
The celebration had its origins in pre-Christian times. For the ancient Celtic tribes who lived in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Brittany, Nov. 1 marked the beginning of winter and a new year. The night before, they celebrated the festival of Samhain, the Lord of the Dead, when the souls of the dead, including ghosts, witches and goblins, returned to earth to mingle with the living. The people would light bonfires and wear masks to frighten away evil spirits that night.
The Romans conquered the Celts about 43 A.D, and in assimilating themselves into the culture of Britain, they added their own touches to the Samhain festival, including making centerpieces of apples and nuts for Pompona, the Roman goddess of the orchards. Two Roman traditions that have continued through the centuries were bobbing for apples and drinking cider.
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, by the second century, Christian writings suggest that Christians were accustomed to solemnize the anniversary of a martyr's death. During the fourth-century persecutions of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, martyrs became so numerous that a separate day could not be assigned to each. The church, wanting to venerate all the martyrs, appointed the Sunday after Pentecost as the day to honor them.
In the seventh century, Pope Boniface IV was given the Pantheon in Rome by the Emperor Phocas. The pope dedicated it on May 13, 609, as the Church of Santa Maria Rotunda in honor of the Blessed Virgin and all martyrs.
During the eighth century papacy of Gregory III, the anniversary was expanded to include all saints, martyrs or not, and it was celebrated on May 13.
In 837, Gregory IV moved the date to Nov. 1. The night before became known as All Hallow's Even, or "holy evening." Eventually the name was shortened to Hallowe'en.
Since about 1048, Catholics have celebrated All Souls Day on Nov. 2, which was an obvious companion date to Nov. 1. The purpose of these three feasts is to honor and remember those who have died in Christ, whether they are officially recognized by the church as saints or not.
Trick-or-treating and carving jack-o'-lanterns are both customs that got their start in medieval Ireland. Groups of villagers would go door to door collecting food and materials for a feast and bonfire. Those who gave were promised prosperity; those who did not received threats of bad luck. "Trick or treat!"
The villagers would also hollow out turnips and place lighted candles inside to ward off any evil spirits that might be lurking.
When scores of Irish Catholics immigrated to the United States in the 1800s to escape poverty, famine and religious oppression, they brought those traditions with them. In America, they discovered the pumpkin, which replaced the carved turnip.
The name jack-o'-lantern comes from an Irish legend of a man named Jack who was forced to roam forever between heaven and earth with only a burning coal inside a pumpkin to light his way because he never performed a selfless act.
Americans of Hispanic descent honor and celebrate their dead at the same time as Halloween and All Saints Day. In anticipation of Los Dias de Los Muertos, Hispanics of Mexico and the U.S. put up decorations of paper garlands, funny, tiny skeletons performing daily tasks and hobbies, and sugar skulls inscribed with names.
Families clean and decorate the graves of their loved ones, and honor their ancestors with home altars groaning with harvest fruits and traditional breads decorated with crossed bones made of dough to greet the spirits as the return to their homes for 24 hours each year.
The colors purple and red signify mourning and the blood of Christ, while pink, white and yellow represent celebration, light and hope. Black is the color of the land of the dead and grief.
The ancient customs of honoring the dead mingled with the ideas and beliefs of medieval Spanish Catholicism and evolved into celebrations honoring the dead with color, flowers and candles, and joy.
So as I begin shopping for bags of wrapped candy to pass out to the little, and not so little, goblins, princesses and ghosts who will knock on my door Halloween night with eagerly held bags and plastic pumpkins, the saints I have known will be at my shoulder, watching.
And on Oct. 31, we'll find out what little Joshua next door will be wearing for Halloween. My bet's on the pirate.