Reviving All Saints’ Day

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A rhetorical question asks, “If being Catholic were a crime, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”  It is an alarming question until we remember that being convicted is exactly what we want to have happen at the Pearly Gates, and if we want to be convicted up there, then we must live lives of conviction down here.

As a Catholic people, we have developed a process of recognizing those who have lived lives of Christian conviction called canonization.  We call these canonized believers, Saints with a capital “S”, and have every confidence that they are now citizens of heaven.  Fast approaching is an opportunity for us parents to celebrate these super heroes of the faith with our children on All Saints’ Day, November 1.  I write about this in October because I’d like to invite families to make better use of this holy day than they might have done previously.  I’m going to cover this theme in two parts, starting here with a condensed history of the holy day and an idea on how to better prepare for its arrival.

I begin by divulging the fact that I am partly Irish Catholic and St. Patrick is the patron super hero of my people.  I’d tip my top hat to St. Patrick even if it weren’t for the marvel of green beer in March and the occasional dispensation from meatless Fridays in Lent.  I recall St. Patrick’s legacy here, however, not because of my great love of green beverages and meat but because of the heroic virtue he exercised in converting my ancestors from nature worshippers to followers of Jesus Christ during the 400s.

The life of St. Patrick was as spectacular as that of any cartoon super hero, maybe even more so.  It involved dramatic showdowns with pagan kings of the Emerald Isle, being held captive and sentenced to death multiple times by polytheistic Druid priests, and then miraculously escaping from their clutches.  At great peril to his own life, St. Patrick rescued entire Celtic tribes from the practices of human sacrifice, sorcery, and the belief that souls could come back from the dead and haunt the mortal world.

One pagan ritual St. Patrick fought against was an annual harvest-time festival called Samhain.  During this festival, Druid priests would light enormous communal bonfires to ward off ghosts, goblins, zombies, and witches that they believed were returning from the underworld with evil intentions.  So as not to be identified and harrassed by this ghoulish mob, common folks were instructed to dress up like them and to offer gifts of food to all those wandering about in disguise.

Now, in order to spread the Gospel, missionaries like St. Patrick often used the tactic of overlaying existing pagan beliefs and traditions with Christian meaning.  This meant that instead of trying to erase a pagan festival, they would simply change the meaning of the celebration to uphold and propagate Christian beliefs.  Popes Gregory III and Gregory IV used such tactics in the ninth century when they moved the church-wide celebration of All Hallow’s Day — known today as All Saints’ Day — from May 13 to November 1.

It is important to know that only recently did we calculate a new day as beginning at midnight.  Before precision watches were commonplace, the beginning of a new day was marked by sundown.  Because of this, the evening before a feast or holy day, and the sunlight hours of a holy day itself were considered to be one event.  Therefore, by placing All Hallow’s Day on November 1, the popes also created All-hallows-eve on October 31.  It was intended that this new solemn vigil would supersede Samhain and other pagan harvest festivals held throughout Europe on the night of the full, harvest moon — typically around the end of October.  Unfortunately, this replacement tactic was not 100% successful, and many of the same ghoulish rituals of Samhain continued to be practiced alongside the new Christian rituals of All-hallows-eve. 

Here’s the thing.  St. Patrick is so much more than the caricature we see in March of a shamrock-toting, snake-dispelling lover of all things green, as are most of the Saints.  To begin to prepare our families for All Saints’ Day, one of the best things we can do during the month of October is to dust off our Book of Saints, or log onto saints.sqpn.com and begin to learn more about the patrons of our own families, and the convictions they lived that paved the way for our faith.

In the late 1840s, waves of my Irish Catholic ancestors came to America, bringing All Hallow’s Day and All-hallows-eve celebrations with them.  With the help of our own fascination with death and the underworld, and due to the embellishment of Hollywood, the solemn vigil of All-hallows-eve has since mutated into the neo-pagan holiday we now call Halloween.  Sadly, frequenting haunted houses, watching horror movies, and dressing children up in creepy costumes has become commonplace, even by otherwise prudent Catholic families, for whom All Saints’ Day was instituted.

I have to think that if St. Patrick were to stand in the seasonal aisles of IParty, Walmart, or any supermarket during the month of October, his Irish eyes would not be smiling: more likely somberly weeping.  Truly, I cannot cast my Irish eyes on those aisles and see anything but the need to plead for mercy from St. Patrick and over two thousand years’ worth of Saints who stood against and braved horrible deaths in order to free us from such wicked paganism.  I shutter to think how Jesus or his mother Mary would feel if they stood in our Halloween aisles.

At a bare minimum, by blindly going along with Halloween as it now exists, we are missing a fantastic opportunity to help ourselves and our children exercise and grow in the Christian courage demonstrated for us by the Saints we claim to honor on November 1st.  I am reminded of the t-shirts and bumper stickers we see at Christmas boldly telling us to “Keep Christ in Christmas.”  Well, I’d like to suggest that as Catholic families this would be a good year to begin to keep our hallowed Saints in All-hallows-eve, too.  The fact is that there are no Druids out there telling us to take our kids out trick-or-treating… or else.  We can opt out of Halloween and into All Saints’ Day with little more than a few uncomfortable questions from neighbors, and maybe being thought of as a little overly zealous for our faith.  The Saints should have had it so bad.

Here are a few ways to make St. Patrick’s eyes shine, Jesus’ sparkle, Mother Mary’s dance, and all heavenly citizens rejoice as we set about reviving a truly Christian All Saints’ Day.  First, go ahead and do something that involves lots of good candy.  Getting gobs of candy and playing dress-up comprise the bulk of the fun of Halloween for young children, and there is nothing inherently wrong with either of those two things.

  • Hold a Saints’ party at your home or church and invite everyone to come dressed as a specific saint.
  • Host a pumpkin carving contest — happy faces only.
  • Make “Candy Heavens.”  Read a portion of scripture that describes heaven and then let everyone try to create what heaven looks like out of candy and frosting.
  • Read about Saints during the month of October.  Be a little careful about reading these stories at bedtime, however, as the lives of most saints were not light and fluffy.
  • Fast from all candy and go to Mass on October 31st as a prayer offering for the safety and conversion to Christianity of those out celebrating Halloween.
  • It’s a little too close to actually celebrating Halloween for me, but some Christian families give trick-or-treaters king-size candy bars over which they have wrapped a scripture verse or a note that says, “Jesus loves you.”

If we are creative, there is an infinite number of ways to keep the hallowed Saints in All Saints’ Day.  More important than creativity, though, is the clarity we give our children in showing them that celebrating All Saints’ Day and its vigil on October 31, instead of Halloween, is a true life opportunity for us to actually be like our super heroes in the faith, giving evidence of our Christian convictions just as they did.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on CE on Oct. 14, 2008. 

image: Shutterstock 

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  • Loretta

    Amen!
    We just had an interesting discussion in the car about this. Personally, I don’t have a problem with dressing up in fun costumes and characters…as long as there isn’t anything grotesque or fixated or even remotely like death. (I’m having fun with a “ballerina-butterfly-princess” for the 4-yr old.)

    But when my 7-yr old saw the tombstones in someone’s yard, he piped up and asked if we could get some, too…writing “RIP” on them. So it gave me an opportunity to (yet again) talk about what “All-Hallows-Eve” is the evening of. We talked about how the original meaning is related to All Saints Day and that our society has taken it and turned it upside-down and backwards, focusing on death and evil. (The 7 and 9 yr olds get it. The 4 yr old was still thinking of sparkles for the tiara.)

    I told them that I don’t have a problem with the idea of dressing up like characters or costumes that are positive. It’s fun! And I told them I certainly don’t have a problem with candy. YUM! So I told them it’s the focus on death, destruction, and evil that can take the soul from a loving place with God down to where the devil wants us. (Luckily our neighborhood is very tame – I haven’t seen anything evil/grotesque at all…mostly older people here.)

    Then I had an idea.

    I told them we should take back a little bit of All-Hallows-Eve. I’m going to look for grave markers to put in our front yard. We’re going to write “NIH” = “Now In Heaven” and we’ll put all the saints names for our family: St. Mary, St. Joseph, St. Nicholas, St. John, St. Thomas, St. Mark, St. Andrew, St. Katherine, and St. Veronica.

    I much rather the Church’s idea of “reclaiming things for God” than just crawling into a hole and waiting for it to go away. (I know that’s not what you were suggesting, Heidi…but it is what some suggest.) We can all make a different impact on those around us. I think this idea will definitely draw out some conversation among my neighbors (or continue discussions from previous times).

  • jmtfh

    Great ideas Loretta!

    Current reports say decorating and spending for Halloween now equals that spent for the Christmas holiday. Let’s start proclaiming All HAllOWS EVE for what it is. I propose that as Christians we start decoration our homes and lawns with LOTS OF CHRISTIAN SYMBOLS.

    I bought a large wooden cross at a flea market for $1…How about using some Christmas angel light-ups, etc. in our yards, too. And let’s keep right on going into Easter–forget the bunny and chicks (though they can symbolize new life). Let’s let crosses with Easter lilies adorning them, and other symbols of the Resurrection, ring loud in our lawns, neighborhoods and communities.

    Here’s another idea–get your whole neighborhood to join you so people will want to rent limos to “see the godly Easter/Halloween decorations” there, like they do in many communities at Christmastime!

    Anyone else out there want to brainstorm on how to take back the holydays for the Kingdom???

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