The one thing about October half term is the ever present Halloween parties that seem to hold children in such great sway.
Halloween is fast becoming a nightmare for Christians parents who feel it epitomizes all things evil. But I think we need to revisit this feast and reclaim it for Christ.We need to look once again at the roots of the feast.
For the Celts, November 1st marked the beginning of a new year and the coming winter. The night before the New Year, they celebrated the festival in honour of their sun-god with bonfires, a tribute to the light that bought them abundant harvest. At the same time they saluted Samhain their “lord of death”, who was thought to gather together at last the souls of the year’s dead which had been consigned to the bodies of animals in punishment for their sins.
The Romans also had a feast at this time of year. So, when they conquered the Celts, they added their own touches to the Samhain festival, such as making center pieces out of apples and nuts for Pomona, the Roman goddess of the orchards. The Romans used to play bob the apple and drank lots of cider .
All Saints was originally celebrated on May 12th. But Pope Gregory III moved it to November 1st, the dedication day of the Chapel of All Saints in St. Peter’s.
In 835 Pope Gregory IV decided this was to be a feast day that was to be observed throughout the Christian world.
The word hallowed means holy, the same word we use in the Our Father. The e’en is a contraction of the word evening. The word Halloween is a shortened form of Hallows’ eve which is literally talking about the evening before the Holy day.
There are many customs which grew out of these feasts. One of the English customs was to knock on doors and beg for “soul cakes”. These cakes were like a little shortbread. The beggar promised to pray for the dead of the household in return for a soul cake. They used to recite little ditties which went like this;
A soul cake, a soul cake,
have mercy on all Christian souls
for a soul cake!
Soul, soul an apple or two,
If you haven’t an apple, a pear will do,
One for Peter, two for Paul, three for the man who made us all.
About 1048 the feast of All Souls was added to the Church calendar, when the Bishop of Cluny decreed all Benedictines of Cluny pray for the souls in purgatory. This feast followed immediately after All Saints on November 2nd.
The purpose of these feasts is to remember those who have died and gone before us. We remember all the Saints, both those officially recognized by the Church and those we don’t know about, and those who may not behold the Beatific Vision yet, but who may need our prayers to help them reach their Heavenly home.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that through the communion of Saints “a perennial link of charity exists between the faithful who have already reached their Heavenly home, those who are expiating their sins in purgatory and those who are still pilgrims on earth. Between them there is, too, an abundant exchange of all good things” (Para 1475).
To help parents navigate their way through this tricky festival I think we need to teach our children about the true meaning of All Hallows’ Eve. We can celebrate with style the real heroes and heroines of our faith.
If your children want to go to a Halloween party I suggest the best thing to do is throw your own. Many parishes are now holding “Night of Light” parties, where children come dressed up as one of the Saints. Our faith is made up of men and women who died heroic, if not gruesome deaths. This would be a great opportunity to learn about some of them and get creative in making an outfit that represented the way they died, e.g St Thomas More could carry his head under his arm, or St Lawrence could carry a toasting fork. St Margaret Clitheroe could have a door made out of card! Anyway, you get my point, with a little bit of research and a lot of ingenuity I am sure Halloween can be transformed into a real celebration.
Children could also do a bit of research and find out about the Saint they are representing and give a short account.
This could be developed into a “trick or treat” style game. Knocking on neighbours doors and asking them to guess which Saint they are. Guess correctly you receive a sweet; uess wrongly you pay a forfeit!
There are traditional games of bobbing for apples; or the one I love is blind Bartimaeus. Two people sit opposite each other blindfolded, with a bowl of broken biscuits between them. The object of the game is to try and feed each other with a spoon. Simple fun but it causes great hilarity for the people watching.
For older children or adults,, “a tray full of Saints” is a good game. On a tray place a dozen or more objects that symbolize familiar Saints. For example, Key-St. Peter; flower-St. Therese; Rose-St. Rose of Lima; Dog-St. Dominic; Bird-St. Francis; Cross-St.Helena; Eagle-St.John the Evangelist; St.James-Shell; Kitchen utensils-St.Martha; half paper coat-St Martin of Tours; picture of Sacred Heart-St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. Etc. Go slowly from one guest to another giving them time to memorize what is on the tray. Then pass out pen and paper and have them list what they remember, and what Saint they think they symbolize.
Pumpkin carving can also be transformed. Just use Christian symbols and a smiley face. The tradition of carving pumpkins came from the Irish. They used to carve pumpkins and tell this tale.
Jack, the Irish say, grew up in a simple village where he earned a reputation for cleverness as well as laziness. He applied his fine intelligence to wiggling out of any work that was asked of him, preferring to lie under a solitary oak endlessly whittling, in order to earn money to spend in the local pub. He was always on the lookout for an “easy shilling” from gambling, a pastime at which he excelled. In his whole life he never made a single enemy, never made a single friend and never performed a selfless act for anyone.
One Halloween, as it happened, the time came for him to die. When the devil arrived to take his soul, Jack was lazily drinking in the pub and asked permission to finish his ale. The devil agreed, and Jack thought fast. “If you really have power,” he said slyly “you could transform yourself into a shilling”.
The devil snorted at such child’s play and instantly turned himself into a shilling. Jack grabbed the coin. He held it tight in his hand, which bore a cross shaped scar. The power of the cross kept the devil imprisoned there, for everyone knows the devil is powerless when faced with the cross. Jack would not let the devil free until he granted him another year of life. Jack figured that would be plenty of time to repent. The devil left Jack at the pub.
The year rolled around to the next Halloween, but Jack never got around to repenting. Again the devil appeared to claim his soul, and again Jack bargained, this time challenging him to a game of dice, an offer Satan couldn’t resist, but a game that Jack excelled at. The devil threw snake eyes – two ones – and was about to haul him off, but Jack used a pair of dice he himself had whittled. When they landed as two threes forming the shape of a cross, once again the devil was powerless. Jack once again bargained for more time to repent.
He kept thinking he’d get around to repentance later, leaving it until the last possible minute. But the agreed upon date arrived and death took him by surprise. The devil hadn’t showed up and Jack soon found out why not. Before he knew it Jack was in front of the pearly gates. St. Peter shook his head sadly and could not admit him, because in his whole life Jack had never performed a single selfless act. Then Jack presented himself before the gates of hell, but the devil was still seething. Satan refused to have anything to do with him. “Where can I go” cried Jack. “How can I see in the darkness?”
The devil tossed him a burning coal into a hollow pumpkin and ordered him to wander forever with only the pumpkin to light his path. From that day to this he has been called ” Jack o’ the lantern.”
These feasts give us the opportunity to teach our children about the darker side of Life. It enables us to warn them about taking part in games that are part of the occult. There is no such thing as “white magic” and all magic is an invitation for the Demons to respond. We can help them learn the prayer of St. Michael and talk to them about the power of sacramentals and prayers that ward off evil, the sign of the cross, holy water, blessed salt, St. Benedict’s medal, etc.
As parents we may not want to become embroiled in the secular events but with All Hallows’ Eve I think we can reclaim for Christ a wonderful opportunity to proclaim our faith, teach our children and enjoy building family memories.