Pastor’s Message November 18th, 2018

Recently, I was delayed in getting to our annual parish golf-outing by a whole cadre of witch and wiccan-costumed riders on bicycles who came past the church on George Bush Boulevard and snarled traffic on many local streets. Previously, they would re-group on our campus without getting permission to gather here (think of all sorts of potential lawsuits). This year, I gave their leadership (professed Wiccans) advance warning that this was not the place to do so because of (among other reasons) safety logistics and sensitivities of morning church-goers. Some aspects of Halloween can be harmless; others, not so.
How did Halloween become such a big event in our country that only the celebration of Christmas outranks it as a commercial giant in the retail marketplace? Certain critics attack it for its bad effect on the true All Saints and All Souls customs, and religious leaders of the evangelical variety attack it as “Satanic” – something not helped by Wiccans (more about them next week) who claim it for their own. Just as Christmas may owe its holly and mistletoe to some long-forgotten Druidical rituals, Halloween may have inherited a thing or two of old Celtic customs brought to American shores by Irish and Scots immigrants. But it has been observed in the Catholic Church as the Vigil of All Saints since the 8th century.
Despite the attempts of followers of the one-hundred-year old religion of Wicca to link it to the Celtic festival of the dead – Samhain – the connection is no deeper than that of Christmas to the pagan Yule. That’s to say, it’s really more present in the minds of academics with an agenda than in the long generations of its practitioners. Proof of this is to be found in the similarity of observances over the three days of “Hallowmas”–(Halloween, All Saints, and All Souls) among Catholic or formerly Catholic cultures from Latin America, Louisiana, Quebec, etc. Prayers and Masses are offered for the dead, candles lit in cemeteries, and in different times and places, folk would go about offering to pray for the deceased of a given household in return for food and drink.
In Britain, this ritual was called “souling.” Food might be served for the dead, depending on the locale. Halloween being the eve of a major feast, fasting and abstinence were once required as well as a meatless supper. In Ireland this meant the savory mess called “Colcannon.”
Not surprisingly, if the spirits of the dead were out and about, it took little to suppose that demons, fairies, witches (and Lord alone knew what else might be out) haunting the dark. In many places costumes were worn, and Ireland saw turnips hollowed out to create makeshift lamps. This practice gave its name to a legend about a man rejected from Hell and forced to wander: “Jack O’Lantern.” When the Celtic immigrants arrived in America, they discovered the pumpkin, and the Jack-o-Lantern took on its new face and character.
In the 19th century, Halloween took root in America like an imported plant that has found incredibly fertile soil. All levels of society fostered Halloween parties featuring uncanny costumes, apple-bobbing, and fortune-telling, while the lower classes built bonfires as their youth wreaked destruction on unguarded property (now replaced by such pre-Halloween events as “Mischief Night” or “Devil’s Night”). After World War I, these activities caused local government to suppress it, and from the 1930s on, it was replaced with the “Trick or Treating” that characterizes the Halloweens of today.
In more recent years, it has once again become an adult holiday, but the question must be asked: why has the horrific side of the day always been so popular in America?
There’s a dark side to American culture which has always been with us. I believe it comes from Calvinism (an early predecessor of Presbyterianism). Think of Salem Witchcraft. In fact, all Europe has dark folklore. England and Ireland produced exceptional ghost story writers. Also, three major American writers – Washington Irving (of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle fame), Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allan Poe – were masters of the macabre, albeit with a touch, or more than a touch, of black humor. The same holds true with more modern writers as Ray Bradbury and Stephen King. So, this isn’t just New England-style ghoul stuff. The mid-West (think Garrison Keillor) and the South (“Gothic South”) have produced stories that can scare the wits out of the young and amuse older generations of Americans. The truth is that for whatever reason, Halloween seems to respond to a deep need in the American soul.
But, just as a Chinese Catholic may still revere Confucius and his own ancestors in some strange way bordering on religious syncretism, nevertheless – if he truly loves his country – he must ponder on how to evangelize it. So, too, for the American Catholics, Halloween offers several opportunities to do something similar. We can inform ourselves and our family of the Church’s teaching on such matters as ghosts, exorcisms, etc., as well as the sacramentals and other means provided by her to ward off the dark side. Also, we can return Halloween to its original role of ushering in the Month of the Holy Souls, by including requests for prayers for the dead in the “goodies” we give out on that enchanted night; and by praying with our children for the faithful departed of those who have, in turn, given them treats. I hope that such a transformed observance would become an indicator of an evangelized nation.