Skeletons and Saints and Sweets, Oh My

A convert's guide to an eerily Catholic Halloween

Growing up most of the kids I knew from Christian families weren’t allowed to celebrate Halloween. Here are a few thoughts on the meaning of this Catholic celebration (yes, really!) and why it matters.

H — Holy. That’s right, folks. Halloween is a derivation of “All Hallows’ Eve” aka “All Saints’ Eve” aka “the vigil of All Saints’ Day”… a Holy Day of Obligation for Catholic Christians. All Saints’ Day is a celebration of the holy saints in heaven who were exemplars of Christ’s love in life and now enjoy the eternal reward of heaven. The saints are our sisters and brothers in faith who pray for us. Let’s feast them well! Why not try making it to a vigil mass this year before the festivities begin?

A — Ancient. The traditions of Halloween date back to the beginning of the Church. In fact, many of them pre-date the birth of Christ. The pagan and pre-Christian traditions of many cultures have been woven into the tapestry of the Catholic faith. This, by far, is one of my favorite things about being Catholic. It is not necessary for a culture to be obliterated or brought into conformity with any universal set of norms to be Catholic. The beauty and meaning and ritual that already exist within a society can be offered a Christian significance. Some critics call this “syncretism.” I call it awesome.

L — Los Muertos. Mexican Catholics combine traditional Aztec celebrations for the dead and the Catholic tradition of All Saints Day into El Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead). This year make your own altar for El Dia de los Muertos. Include a crucifix, images and statues of your favorite saints, and pictures of deceased family, friends and loved ones, as well as their favorite treats. El Dia de los Muertos is a day to remember that by the power of Christ’s death and resurrection the separation and pain death causes is not permanent… not ultimately triumphant. It’s a day to invite the souls of our departed loved ones to draw near in anticipation of our eternal togetherness in heaven. Check out this short BBC documentary on El Dia de Los Muertos.

L — Lovers of Jesus. Halloween is an occasion for celebrating the saints. If you’re new to praying with the saints (or if you’re in need of a refresher course), get to know a new saint this All Hallows’ Eve. Choose a saint to be your partner in prayer for this year. You can pick a saint who shares your name, whose feast day coincides with your birthday, who is the patron of your occupation or field of study, or whose life resonates with you for one reason or another. This site offers a database of saints listed by name, patronage and feast day.

O — Own your mortality. Almost every yard in our small town neighborhood is bedecked in skulls, skeletons and gravestones. Some Christians turn up their noses at such displays as pagan and demonic. But not Catholics! All Hallows’ Eve is an opportunity for us to remember our mortality. Death is an inevitable part of the human condition. I hate to break it you, but no matter how much organic flax seed oil or how many cruciferous vegetables you consume your body cannot live forever. Halloween is a celebration of the inevitability of death, the fragility of life and, above all, our hope in the resurrection of the dead. Halloween is an opportunity for us to put all of our anxiety about death right in the forefront and find consolation in the saints who enjoy eternal life in heaven with God.

WWeird. Enough said.

E — Eat… and pray. The origins of trick-or-treat have to do with prayer. The poor (often poor children) would travel from house to house offering to pray for the souls of the dead belonging to each family in return for small treats. This year, in the midst of the onslaught of candy, caramel apples and popcorn balls, take time to pray for the poor… especially poor children. Put your prayer into action! You can trick-or-treat for UNICEF. (It might be too late to receive one of their official boxes in the mail, but don’t let that stop you. Making your own could be a fun family activity.) Is there a shelter that serves homeless women and children in your city? Bring trick-or-treat to them! Contact the shelter ahead of time to find out how many children to expect and what sort of goodies might be most appreciated. Do you know a family that’s struggling to put food on the table? Leave a basket of seasonal treats on their doorstep. You could include a loaf of pumpkin bread, apple butter, and some beautiful (and edible!) winter squash and fresh apples. The “trick” is you don’t sign your name. The “treat” is some delicious food and knowing that someone cares.

E — Early American Catholics. Did you know that the Jack-o’-lantern was brought to this country by Irish Catholics? The tale of “Stingy Jack,” a miserly scoundrel who played tricks on the Devil, is the cautionary tale upon which this tradition is based. The first Jack-o’-lanterns were carved from potatoes and turnips. Pumpkin became the gourd of choice because of its abundance in the American colonies. Remember, the Puritans (and their descendents in this century, modern Evangelicals) are a war with Halloween dubbing it “unchristian” and “evil.” (Puritans targeted its Catholic participants too.) Don’t take this holy day for granted!

N — Need a costume? Honor the reason for the season by dressing up like one of the saints! You could be St. Lucy carrying her eyes on a plate, St. Thomas More toting his severed head under his arm, St. Michael the Archangel in full armor, St. Padre Pio complete with oozing stigmata, or St. Margaret of Antioch peering out from the mouth of a dragon. (An extra star in your Busted Halo if you can pull this one off and tweet the Busted Halloween Photo Contest your photo!)

Are you choosing a saint to pray with this year? Do you have an idea for an epically Catholic Halloween costume? Do you make an altar for El Dia de Los Muertos? I’d love to hear about it!

Have fun. Be safe. And have a very blessed (and very Catholic!) Halloween!