A Reflection on Halloween, All Saint's Day, and All Souls Day (October 31-November 2)
I grew up in a Protestant home. I had a weak understanding of the Bible's prohibition against sorcery. I had no understanding of the concept of purgatory. At age 5, I dressed up as a nearly naked Wonder Woman, despite the threat of lake effect snow. At age 8, I dressed up as a black hatted witch. I carried an orange box next to my candy bag in order to Trick Or Treat for UNICEF. Later, I used an Ouija Board in what seemed like a harmless sleep-over party game among my fifth grade friends.
After I became an adult convert to the Catholic Faith, I learned that my use of a Ouija Board was a sin. Many of my other 'normal' childhood experiences during Halloween seemed vaguely harmful as well. I knew that I needed to change what Halloween traditions I passed along to my own children. However, I wasn't sure what a fun, authentic Catholic Halloween was supposed to look like.
Feeling lost, I started crowd-sourcing for ideas among my rosary praying friends. "How does you family celebrate Halloween?"
That question can ignite a firestorm of controversy among certain Catholic bloggers. Some orthodox families seem to think that Harry Potter costumes and bloody vampire fangs are totally fine. Other families ban Halloween celebrations all together and substitute Fall Harvest Festivals.
I once had the misfortune of helping a small parish plan an All Saints Day Party. A mother asked if her toddler could substitute a beloved Lady Bug costume for a proper saint costume at our parish hall event. Within hours, bitter points of view among fellow Catholic mothers erupted over a long series of email exchanges. The party-planning committee split into two camps. Should our church require that guests only wear saints costumes on November 1st? Or should we rephrase the event title to include "All Saints and All of God's Creatures?"
As a trained lawyer, I solved this intense church member fight with wisdom worthy of St. Paul. I told my fellow members that we shouldn't vote on this divisive matter democratically. Instead, we should ask our parish priest to make a final ruling on the All Saints Day costume issue. Obedience is a virtue that can tame many harmful internet exchanges!
Over the years, my husband and I have gradually adapted a "Middle Way" of celebrating Halloween. Each of our five kids are natural actors who love to play dress-up. Sometimes a kid picks their Halloween costume from among the Angels and the Saints. Other times, a kid picks a favorite Super Hero or Disney Princess.
After a couple of years of skipping Halloween Night altogether, I discovered that I really enjoy going Trick-Or-Treating with my large family. It's a chance to meet new neighbors and smile at the children of strangers. It's a chance to gather new prayer intentions. On Halloween Night, there is a softness in the air. There are many gruff neighbors who break into smiles while watching preschool boys happily showcase their manly Captain America costumes.
I feel comfortable letting my kids dress up and eat too much sugar on Halloween, because I know that the real spiritual party is coming up the next day on November 1. All Saints Day is a Day of Holy Obligation. Catholics attend a special Mass to celebrate the diversity of spiritual heroes within the Catholic Faith.
All Saints Day remains a special joy to me because I grew up knowing so few of the Catholic Saints as a child. All Saints Day feels like a giant family reunion. There is one grand day on the Church Calendar where we celebrate everyone of heroic virtue. The sheer diversity of Catholic saints is astonishing. All Saints Day is a clear reminder that God calls all people--from every time period, every culture, and every walk of life--to embrace his gift of holiness. A saint is simply a person who used their ordinary daily life well and won a great victory for God at their death.
As a Mother, I use All Saints Day to help my children form unique friendships with their own special Saint friends. One daughter has a devotion to the extremely popular St. Therese of Lisieux. Another daughter has a strong connection to the much less popular St. Margaret of Scotland. On All Saints Day, I encourage my kids to make Art Projects on their Favorite Saints. We share their insights with Dad after he comes home from work.
My husband and I take our kids to All Saints Day Mass, usually at night. The baby is extra hyper after being awake past her bedtime two nights in a row. Yet there is a beautiful reverence which comes from praying at our familiar church at an unfamiliar time of night. All the stain-glass windows are dark and the candlelight feels extra bright. I poke my older kids meaningfully in the arm whenever their favorite saint is mentioned in the extra long, Litany of the Saints.
On the car trip home, my family talks about all the favorite saints that we have forgotten about during most of the year. There is Saint Perpetua who was calmly eaten by a bear inside the Roman Colosseum and St. Lawrence who joked "I'm done on this side, you can turn me over" after being roasted in a fire. The night drive home from Mass feels like a New Years Eve of sorts. We each resolve to keep in better contact with our best friends in heaven during the upcoming year.
The celebration of All Saints Day on November 1st feels grand and universal. The celebration of All Souls Day on November 2nd feels intimate and personal. On All Souls Day, my family remembers the friends and family members who have died before us. We speak out loud the names of two sons we lost in late miscarriages. We share funny memories about my Father-in-law, who died far too early from cancer. We honor our Grandmothers, Jean and Ida, who made sure that my husband and I were baptized in their Christian Faith.
I make sure to take my kids to the optional church visit on All Souls Day. We complete the Indulgence Requirements and Light a Candle to help a Soul in Purgatory. It's not always an easy experience to take young kids to church. Sometimes, I feel relieved when I find my parish totally empty at 2 PM. Yet I also feel sad. I grew up watching the All Souls Day Candle prayers said only in the movies. Those prayers for souls in purgatory seemed exotic and strange and somehow wonderfully moving. Now when I attend an almost empty All Souls Day service as an adult, I feel a wistful longing that more Catholics would come to church to pray on this special day.
Last year, I attended an All Souls Day Mass at my church only few days after the funeral of my son Leo, who died before his birth. I worried that it would be too hard to go to Mass with the raw memory of his tiny coffin. Attendance at that church service gave my family extra grace. My kids were shocked to see a candle lit in their brother's name, along with everyone else in the parish who had died during the proceeding year. The candles were arranged in order of the parishioners' date of death. Leo's candle was the same height as a nun who died at age 92, only a few days before him. I felt surprised that a long-serving nun and an unborn baby were commemorated in the exact same manner on my parish window sill. Yet it felt like a great sign of our Catholic belief in the universal dignity of the human soul.
Finding a way for my family to calmly celebrate All Saints Day and All Souls Day took a great deal of trial and error. I wish I could have read Cardinal Wuerl and Mike Aquilina's book, The Feasts: How the Church Year Forms Us as Catholics, earlier in my spiritual life. The authors explain that "Calendars form us. Calendars help to define us as the people we are."
This book is an antidote to the frantic flurry of opinions surrounding holiday traditions. Authors Cardinal Wuerl and Mike Aquilina explain that the Church Calendar is primarily a teaching tool. "[Christians] learn the mysteries of Christianity by celebrating the mysteries of Christianity."
Feast Days are an invitation to walk more intimately with Jesus. Feast Days teach us the deep mysteries of our Catholic faith. Feast Days allow us to "rest in God." Feast Days encourage us to act in a more loving manner towards our friends, our family members, and even total strangers. This detailed reference book is a blessing to help Catholic families create prayerful, cheerful and calm Feast Day traditions within in their homes and their parishes. Thank you Cardinal Wuerl and Mike Aquilina for sharing your fine thoughts and extensive research with your larger Catholic family!