29 October 2010

Trads Beware: Halloween Approaches

I kid, because I love.

There are certain subjects that can call into question your "Trad" Catholic credentials, much like certain activities (like shopping for scarves) will put your "man card" in jeopardy.  

For traditional Catholics, many of the "trad card" items are more arcane, such as whether you voluntarily submit to (or even enjoy) a dialogue Mass, or whether you think the post 1955 Holy Week changes were a good idea (OK, this is purely theoretical, as I have never met or heard of a person whose last name did not rhyme with Bugnini who failed to recoil in horror at the idea). 

One more common issue of contention is television.  Not whether it is good or bad, mind you, but whether it is acceptable to own one, kept in a closet, just in case someone wants to watch a VHS copy of Song of Bernadette on her feast day.

But there is something about Halloween that divides the ranks of Trads.  Certainly, no Catholic worthy of the name would suggest that engaging in sorcery, worshipping evil spirits, digging up corpses or carousing with covens are anything but horrific.  I'm talking about acknowledging the day with dressing up in costumes or trick-or-treating through the neighborhood.  Here, opinions range from allowing trick-or-treating and/or parties with non-demonic/occultist costumes of any variety; to allowing trick-or-treating and/or parties in an "All Saints Eve" sense, with costumes of the saints; to refraining from any commemoration of the day as irrevocably tainted, unless it is to deride it as Protestant Revolution Day.

The brilliant Catholic writer John Zmirak has written a wry and insightful post on Inside Catholic about the topic.  As usual, I agree with something less than 100% of it, but enjoy 200% of it.  The full piece is here for you to read, but check out the excerpts below.  I will also put up a poll at the right of the blog to gather some quick opinion.

All the decorations are up, folks are frantically shopping and preparing, and the anticipation is almost killing me as I await the brightest, best moment of the whole liturgical year: Halloween, of course.

As far back as I can remember, this feast far outclassed Christmas on my personal calendar. No matter that Santa brought piles of gifts like the board game version of The Six Million Dollar Man, the Shrunken Head Machine, or yet one more encyclopedia set which I had begged for. None of this could compare with the fistfuls of crunchy loot that strangers dropped into our sacks, as we trooped up and down the stairwells of our tenements. What made those gobs of candy glow with a sinister excitement was the threat that some might be -- must be! -- laced with deadly poison, our apples stuffed with razor blades, by evil old crones who were eager to kill off the children. Or so my mother insisted, and made me swear not to pop a single kernel of black candy corn into my mouth that she had not personally inspected.


Of course, this holiday was born to commemorate the many nameless saints and prepare for the feast of holy souls in Purgatory -- that scary, fascinating middle place that only we Catholics really believe in. That makes All Souls' Day (November 2) the most distinctively Roman Catholic holiday in the calendar. The Orthodox pray for the dead, but if you accuse them of agreeing with Catholic teaching on this subject -- as on any other --they will vigorously deny it. Likewise, their liturgy and traditions affirm truths suspiciously similar to the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, which they only began to deny once Rome declared them infallible. Had I the pope's ear, I'd beg him to teach, ex cathedra, that Jesus really existed -- if only to hear the monks of Mt. Athos find ways to deny it.


Halloween provokes contention among American Christians to this day. Some homeschooling friends of mine confessed to me that they felt torn over whether or not to let their son dress up and go trick-or-treating; their Protestant friends kept telling them that this holiday was pagan or even Satanic. And given their theology, you can see their point: The souls of the dead are either in Heaven -- in which case they're not walking the earth and need not be appeased, represented, mocked, or even commemorated, depending on which reading you give to the way we Catholics appropriated old pagan customs that marked this time of year-- or else they're in Hell, and not worth remembering. Anyone who's dead and suffering deserves it, and will go on suffering forever. There's no sense in attracting his attention.

We, on the other hand, picture the Church in three unequal slices: a golden sliver, already enjoying beatitude; we dung-spattered soldiers still slogging through the trenches here on earth; and the vast military hospital where most of us hope to end up, a very big tent indeed where souls heal from the damage they did themselves on earth and are made whole enough to be welcomed into Heaven. When we do ourselves up in costumes and tromp through the streets on Halloween, we are marching in a kind of Veterans' Day Parade in honor of the sinners who went before us, not yet into glory but into the painful, therapeutic shadow it casts outside its doors.

It's our very comfort with the queerness and creepiness of the whole soul-body mystery that marks the Catholic faith off from its closest competitors. I grew up loving The Addams Family, without knowing quite why, until one day as an adult I realized: These people are an aristocratic, trad-Catholic homeschooling family trapped in a sterile Protestant suburb! Shunning the utilitarianism and conformity that surrounds them, they face the Grim Reaper with rueful good cheer, in a Gothic home stock full of relics. Indeed, I think I might have spotted several Addamses at the indult parish in New York City . .


Now, I'm very much in agreement that two-year-old children should not be dressed as Satan. For one thing, it's a little bit too realistic. Indeed, the fallenness of children, which Augustine bemoaned in his Confessions, is so evident to everyone that garbing the little tykes in the robes of absolute evil seems to overstress the point. Nor do we wish to trivialize the serious, deadly purpose of our infernal enemy -- dragging each of us screaming to Hell. If you're feeling puckish, it's in much better taste to dress up your kids as Osama bin Laden, Annibale Bugnini, or some other of the Evil One's lesser minions. If you must dress your boys as saints, choose military martyrs, canonized crusaders, or patriarchs from the Old Testament. One suggestion I made as editor of the Feasts and Seasons section of Faith & Family magazine was this: Dress up your daughters as early Roman martyrs, like Agnes and Agatha, and your sons as the Roman soldiers, gladiators, and lions that sent them to heaven. Stock up on lots of fake blood for the girls' machine-washable tunics, and let the games begin! (Alas, this idea never saw print.)

Dust off that DVD of The Nightmare before Christmas, wake up the kids, and watch the expression on their faces. Trust me, it's better catechesis and preparation for life than Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or (God forbid!) The Giving Tree. Read them to sleep with hair-raising accounts of Purgatory by Suffering Souls who appeared to solitary, starving nuns, like the classic Catholic children's book Read Me or Rue It. Find a Latin requiem Mass for All Souls' Day, invite your Facebook "friends" and pack the place, collecting plenary indulgences for the dead -- in the hope that someday, others will do the same for you. If you're impious enough to have read this far, something tells me that you'll need it.



Anonymous said...

A fun read! When I was a kid, Halloween was great. We made our own costumes out of whatever we had at home. An older sister was particularly creative. We walked the n-hood w/o mom or dad. We went out with the large Catholic family next to us. It was also my bro's B-day....candy and cake too!... and company...and no school the next day. That was when Catholic schools got off for Holy Days. Those were the days. [And we didn't even know it was Protestant Revolution day.]

My kids like dressing as superheroes or soldiers. They were at a party recently where over half the boys were grim reapers, skeletons or black-clad ninjas. I am glad they were not!

Long-Skirts said...


On All Hallow's Eve
Doth blow the leave
Bare branches
Bend down to the ground.

Children believe
And simply conceive
There's evil
And it's all around.

So pumpkins all lit
Trick or treat just a bit
All costumed they
Go through the town.

They face with much wit
Tell jokes that do fit
For fun,
It's really quite sound.

And then it's November
Until cold December
Times black
That we all must pass.

But Catholics remember
All Saints' Day each member,
Dark's contrast...
Gold Light of the Mass!