Okay, so some of you are still thinking that the Catholic religion is so uncool, what with the emphasis on light, good and purity. Yes, we advocate and love those things but we boast of a both/and religion instead of the standard either/or you get from a lot of Christianity. You think that we don’t celebrate Halloween, that we loath black, ghostly garb, consider skulls satanic and fear blood and death? Well I am here to say you’re dead wrong. Maybe you had us confused with the Jehovah’s Witnesses who hate holidays? Let me set the record straight on how we Catholics do Halloween and cherish it’s gothic awesomeness.
1) What’s in a name?
The word Halloween comes from “Hallows Eve” which is a distortion of the name for a Catholic holy day called “All Hallows Eve.” Back then “hallow” used to mean sacred and was an ideal description for the dead. For centuries, devout Catholics chose the last day of October to commemorate all the faithful departed. We singled out a day to celebrate death. Whether we borrowed some customs from the Pagans is debatable as we’re the only Christian group old enough to have lived side-by-side with them. Jack-o-lanterns, incense and funeral dirges were commonplace in the authentic Catholic celebration of the departed and we are still bringing it out today.
2) The Haunting.
Poltergeists, demons, spirits? There’s a ring of truth to all those movies portraying Catholic priests as number-one fighters of evil spirits. Catholic religious imagery pervades exorcist movies, vampire novels and tales of the netherworld gone wrong. In days of old, priestly exorcists combatted the demons which haunted man- and this very day, the Vatican trains exorcists to do battle with things that go bump in the night.
3) The Catecombs.
Think Christians are squeamish of blood and death? Yeah right… In the Roman Empire when Christians risked gruesome death by crucifixion, burning alive and mauling by wild beasts, Catholics crept out in the dead of night to celebrate the burial of these martyrs. Going forth in dark cover, Catholic Christians gathered at the tombs of their dead to hold votive Masses. They anointed and dressed the bodies then held communion atop the very tomb in which they were buried. Catholics were the first to bring picnics to graveyards and they weren’t afraid. Their oral traditions, passed down grisly pictures of saints being beheaded, deacons grilled alive and apostles that were skinned like rabbits. To this day, the Roman catacombs stand as testament that Catholics do not fear death and in fact, celebrate in its midst.
4) Black Mass.
Characteristic of the gothic look is black garb. Black is the color of defiance. In defiance of death, which claims all men, devout Catholics gather for All Soul’s Mass. Candles pierce the dark in remembrance of life so easily snuffed-out and a priest in black vestments leads a most-solemn Mass. Like a good mother, Mother Church mourns her dead sons and daughters. She does so not in hiding, not with shallow joy that tries to forget, but in blackness amidst the strains of heady chant. No one on earth can listen to the chant “Dies Irae”- whether by monks or Mozart- and not ponder death’s grim finality, the dust in which we all must lay.
Who doesn’t love those cute monsters with twisted faces and grey features? Truly, the hideous gargoyle was a staple of Medieval, Catholic architecture. Some say the artists carved them to relieve boredom, others that they were only waterspouts. Nonetheless, the stony gargoyles with their toothy grins, bat-like wings and bulbous eyes served as reminders for the demons who remained outside the church’s sacred space. At best, they were dark, angelic protectors of the sanctuary. Either way, these draconic figures haunted cathedral portals, hallways and sanctuaries, threatening to do untold things to irreverent passerby.
6) Trick or Treat.
For Catholics, life doesn’t end with death. After this remains either heaven or hell. While hell is a horrible, dark place, most Catholics depend on Christ’s mercy to get them to the heavenly realm. Needless to say, this mercy was bought by blood, pain and death. Yet, the Christian’s last word is not about blood, pain and death but a tremendous feast held in heaven. “You shall eat and drink in the Kingdom of heaven” Christ promises. Catholics fully believe this. Having survived the trials, temptations and evils of this world, they prepare to enter the next. All Hallows Eve is all about honoring the dead- and feasting. This is why you sometimes see food and wine left at graves. Heaven is the destination of the dead, the place of final rest and so they, at last, partake in the joy of the blessed!