Hallowe’en & Hallowtide

At a time when the world and the Church are in a mess – and when was it otherwise? – we should perhaps give some occasional thought to staying level, stable, and sane.

In an email, I received some batty thing denouncing Hallowe’en as a satanic festival, founded on the pagan celebration of Samhain and. . .whatever, as they say. To my sight, the author, at least nominally Catholic, was not well informed. The pagan threat he was alluding to did not come from another century. It comes from now.

Catholics, generally, in these parts (I speak only of the parts I know) are not well informed these days. I’m beginning to think the Church may have something to do with it: for as we pursue a more worldly agenda, our own slips away. Hallowe’en provides a good example.

A more Catholic event would be hard to imagine. Today is the eve and vigil of “All Hallows” or Saints, which is in turn succeeded by the feast of “All Souls” (and before the “Spirit of Vatican II,” with an Octave). It is a triduum of Hell, Heaven, and Purgatory. The Communion of the Saints is an extremely Catholic idea. I would further say, Christian, but if our separated brethren wish to deny this. . .who am I to judge?

The dead are alive. Paradoxical as that may sound, it is our “traditional” belief. The human soul is immortal: fortunately in some cases, misfortunately in others. I recall from childhood Calvinist expression of outrage against Catholics “praying for the dead.” I didn’t understand it at the time. The penny dropped later.

It was one of those strange little scruples that, even to the mind of a child, suggests stridency: some human thinks he knows better than God.

Later, I got the point of this “anti-doctrine.” The existence of Purgatory denied, God must assign everyone immediately to Heaven or to Hell, and nothing their survivors can do will help them, one way or t’other. It is all settled, and the mother who slips, “through mediaeval superstition,” into praying for, say, her dead son, should be punished for her sin. Indeed, this I learned from just such a mother, whose “traditional” Protestant faith was being cracked by the cruelty of this old, anti-Catholic dictum.

Let the existence of Purgatory therefore be affirmed. That, anyway, is what I could tell her. No loving God would send people to hell if there were any way to save them. No loving God would ignore a mother’s prayers for her son. If we may pray for, and with, the living, we may pray for, and with, the dead. For the dead are also living.

And not only on Earth, and not only in Purgatory. The communion of “the quick and the dead,” with the saints in the Body of Christ, is at the heart of our religion. Hence, the holy processions I have witnessed, of the living with their candles, through the cemeteries on All Hallows’ Eve – to their family graves, the graves of their ancestors, the graves of all beloved. We recognize that they are living still.

All Souls’ Day by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1859)

To the modern “rational” mind, which has passed through the Reformation and the Enlightenment, and thence beyond reach of Christian teaching, this is ridiculous superstition. The dead are dead, and no quaint custom can alter the fact. After the life of a midge, we are dead forever. (It was on Hallowe’en, in 1517, that Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of All Saints Church at Wittenberg; if you will, the original “trick or treat.”)

Life, to this modern view, post-Protestant and post-Catholic alike, is an accident of Evolution; neither life nor death can have any “meaning” – beyond what edicts and jackboots can impose.

In some class I am teaching in a seminary somewhere, we have been reading novels. In Shusaku Endo’s Silence, we encounter a spooky refrain of children, in early 17th-century Nagasaki. Lanterns were hung out for Urabon, rather as our jack-o’-lanterns; it is a harvest thanksgiving festival with strange parallels to our Western Hallowe’en. An imprisoned Portuguese missionary hears, somewhere in the streets beyond his cell:

O lantern, bye-bye-bye,
If you throw a stone at it your hand withers away;
O lantern, bye-bye-bye,
If you throw a stone at it your hand withers away.

The priest is struck by the plaintiveness of the children’s voices, heard far off. An image of ghostly children forms in the reader’s mind.

I thought, for instance, of children in Mexico, summoning the angelitos – all the dead children to come play with them. Today, one cannot help but think of the spirits of the millions upon millions of dead children, sacrificed in our ultra-modern Carthaginian rites, to the gods of sexual liberation.

“How ghoulish!” our ultra-modern will complain. For our way to deal with death is not to think about it; medicating, as it comes into view.

That death is, in some sense, ghoulish, we recognized within Hallowe’en, and have always recognized in Christian ritual, wherein not death but Hell is to be feared. Think of all the centuries when children, who were earnestly wanted, died before they could grow; in which little ones were consigned to the grave, as a common occurrence. (And we, who do not much care for children, easily assume their mothers did not weep.)

It is said, by the glib, that Hallowe’en was derived from some pagan festival, such as that Gaelic Samhain – perhaps forgetting that there were people in the ancient world who were not Celtic. We could with equal plausibility found it upon Urabon in Japan, or the Chinese festival of the Double Ninth. For there is no culture, of which I am aware, that does not commemorate the dead; and most such festivals, mysteriously enough, coincide with harvest.

We Christianized this: made it an occasion for Christian teaching. And if Hallowe’en has reverted to paganism in our time, then fine, we must Christianize it again.

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.