Though I'm not one for parades, I very much enjoy the Greenwich Village Annual Halloween Parade.
Last year, I went as St. Michael the Archangel―replete with six foot wings made of white turkey feathers.
I was a sight to behold.
More so to a tiny, adorable Orthodox Jewish toddler in her stroller who pointed at me in wide-eyed amazement as if visited by an actual angel.
"Engel!" she piped.
I gasped because that poignant moment shouldn't pass away unnoticed and ungasped.
I smiled at her and nodded. "Engel!" I whispered and she smiled again.
This precious angel never took her eyes off of me during the entire ride to Manhattan.
I'm not one for maudlin sentimentality but if I were, this would have been the moment in which I would have gladly indulged myself.
What does this have to do with Halloween? Absolutely nothing. I just wanted to tell the story.
Halloween is a great holiday despite the naysayers and wags. You can't have as much fun on any other single day unless you were a multibillionaire whose birthday coincidently fell upon Christmas morn.
Around this time every year Christian parents asked me about the appropriateness of their children dressing up like Spiderman or cowboys or fairy princesses and every year I give them the same response―other than Christmas and Easter, it's difficult to imagine a more Catholic a holiday than Halloween.
It's true that Halloween is often associated with death, the supernatural and icky, slimy, spooky stuff but this isn't a reason to abandon the holiday.
Unlearned pagans and Christians will point out that Halloween is derived from Celtic holiday called "Samhain." This is mostly correct but not the full story. Though the ancient Celts celebrated a minor holiday on October 31st dedicated to the harvest, they celebrated the last day of every month as well.
The history of All Saints Day, or "All Hallows Day"―a day dedicated to remembering those who had passed before us―is a fascinating one. The word "Halloween" is simply the abbreviated form of the word "All Hallow's Eve"―the evening vigil celebration of the next day. Christianity continues the Jewish custom of commencing a holiday celebration at sundown the night before the actual festival with a vigil. The holiday to honor All Saints had originally been celebrated on May 13, but in AD 731, Pope Gregory III moved it to Nov. 1 in commemoration of the founding of the All Saints Chapel in St. Peter's in Rome.
In AD 998, St. Odilo, the abbot of France's Cluny Monastery, added a celebration on Nov. 2 dedicated to praying for the souls of all the faithful departed and not just the saints. Not long afterwards, the holiday was added to the universal calendar.
Thus, with the addition of these two holidays, we Christians honor those who passed before us while celebrating the fact that death no longer has a hold on us. Sometimes modern Halloween revelers interpret death bizarrely when they dress as vampires and zombies but they are, in essence, making light of death and not celebrating it, per se.
At this point in the explanation, I’m usually screeched at by neo-pagans and faux-witches who insist that a "Christianized" Halloween was a way to appease, strong-arm or otherwise hoodwink medieval pagans. This is flatly and laughingly false. By the time these additional festivals came to the Church calendar, Europe had already long been Christianized. There was no reason to "fool" pagans as very few of them could be found at that point. The same thing goes for Africa currently where pagans are few and far between due to the great success of the Holy Spirit working though Christian missionaries.
Neo-pagans and faux-witches can whine as is their right but neither logic not historical reality are on their side.
As to the delightful custom of dressing in costumes on Halloween, we can find its origin in 14th and 15th century France. Apparently, during bubonic plague epidemics, artists would depict "la Dance Macabre," or "The Dance of Death" on cemetery walls and coffins. The images would depict the devil or death leading a ring of the recently deceased into a tomb. Eventually, a custom arose in France of reenacting "la Dance Macabre" on All Soul's Day with people dressing up as the dead. It was believed that the demons that were out and about on that night up to no-good would be fooled by the masked party-goers and move on to search for other places where they can haunt unencumbered.
But you might ask: "What about all of that treacly goodness and blessed tooth-rotting candy our kids seem to amass in unhealthy quantities?!"
I'm so glad you asked.
Guy Fawkes Day, celebrated on Nov. 5, commemorates the unsuccessful Catholic uprising in Britain known as the Gunpowder Plot which intended to blowup Parliament and overthrow King James' genocidal government. To commemorate the date, small children would don masks and go door-to-door begging for "a penny for the Guy," the hapless keeper of the gunpowder intended for the revolution. Adult revelers would demand beer and cakes.
And, as they say, "Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker."
The free flowing liquor might explain the "tricks" part of "trick-or-treating."
But, either way, the custom of dressing in masquerade and asking for small presents migrated easily to All Hollow's Eve.
How much more Catholic a holiday can anyone hope for? Halloween has got piety, spooky thrills and images of death.
And as long as we're on the subject…what's so bad about thinking about death?
As Christians, we're ideally unafraid of it. That’s why its contemplation is encouraged. After all, we are strangers in a strange land. (Exodus 2:22, 1 Peter 2:11-12) and we eagerly await our triumphant return to our true home with God. (Philippians 3:20)
The early Roman pagans who were hell-bent on exterminating us presumed we were a death cult because our ancestors hide in catacombs and welcomed a glorious martyr's death. We kept our eyes on a heavenly prize and held this world in disdain. In fact, Memento mori (Latin: "remember that you will die") is a Christian ascetic discipline meant to perfect one's moral and spiritual character by cultivating worldly detachment. By turning one's attention to the soul's immortality, the Christian is encouraged to lead a virtuous life.
Personally, I’m not one for ghoulish or morally repulsive costumes but that's not what this Catholic holiday is about. It's like refusing to go to church just because you've heard of people talking on the cellphones at Mass.
And as to those who insist that the holiday has been taken over by pagan elements, I say, let's arm-wrestle the pagans for it. It was our holiday originally and I prefer it stay that way.
All Hallow's Eve, All Saint's Day and All Soul's Day are steeped in Catholic theology and piety. And besides, Halloween is just so much fun. We couldn't have arranged a more perfect synthesis of devotion and festivity had we tried. Let's resolve to take back the holiday and celebrate it as it was originally intended―a spiritual preparation for the two by far more important holidays following it, All Souls Day and All Saints Day. For years, my parish school has had the delightful custom of asking students to dress as their favorite saints for their Halloween party.
I'm thinking about going as St. George this Halloween. Now I just need twenty friends to dress up as dragon and walk behind me.
That should wake people up on the subway.