Last October, my 12-year-old son stood in the aisle of our local pharmacy and held up a life-like foam replica of a human skull.
“How about this one?”
I winced. My son rolled his eyes.
“Come on!” he coaxed. “St. Francis had one!”
Of course he did. I placed the skull in our cart, along with an economy-pack of vampire teeth, a tube of fake blood, and a discounted package of candy corn. Now we were ready.
I sometimes struggle against my feminine impulses to “mommify” Halloween. Many of us moms would prefer to remove references to evil, fear, and death from our family’s observances of All Hallow’s Eve, much as we would prefer our sons to skip football and pursue gentler sports instead. Like chess.
In our discomfort, some of us avoid trick-or-treating and scary props and costumes altogether, in favor of All Saints Day celebrations. It’s the very next day, after all, and it’s definitely a Catholic feast. The kids still get to dress up and eat candy, and we all get to focus on the triumph of the saints, rather than all that evil, fear, and death stuff.
But we cheat ourselves when we skip over the scary and run straight to the glory. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating All Saints Day, of course, but evil, fear, and death are real, and Holy Mother Church doesn’t “mommify” any of it.
When I happened upon some skull-shaped molds at a craft store once, I was confused. The clerk explained that they were for calaveras de azúcar, a traditional sugar treat made to celebrate Mexico’s Day of the Dead. I don’t know the details of how this feast is celebrated in modern-day Mexico, but the concept of remembering the reality of death, even with frightening images of skulls and skeletons, is undeniably rooted deep in the truths and traditions of Catholicism.
The Church doesn’t ignore pain, fear, evil, and death. It fully serves our human needs, not only as spiritual creatures, but as physical ones as well. Each of the sacraments, for example, requires our bodily participation. We don’t just receive grace; we taste, touch, and feel it.
Protestant celebrations of Reformation Sunday each Halloween are a timely reminder that it’s simply not Catholic to ignore or deny the physical realities of our humanity, even when they are frightening and unpleasant. The Church certainly doesn’t. She meets us right where we are, neck-deep in human weakness, and gives us a lens through which we can face the evils that we fear.
Three years ago, my husband’s cousin and his wife lost their four-month-old baby daughter to a rare illness. My human heart and mind reeled at the prospect of making sense of such a painful loss. I had no words, but the Church had many. Beautiful ones, in fact.
The joyful Alleluias we sang and prayed at the funeral “Mass of the Angels” stood in stark contrast to the small church filled with grief and mourning. The Church did not ignore our pain; she met us where we were, right there in it, and shined on it the light of truth and salvation.
I’ve heard it said that one of Satan’s greatest triumphs comes when he succeeds in convincing us that he does not exist. A properly celebrated Halloween, with its scary costumes and images of death, places evil right before our eyes. We should not celebrate Satanism, of course, but the typical Halloween props of ghosts, witches, spiders, and skeletons are appropriate manifestations of the evils that we fear. There is something authentically Catholic about spooking ourselves with these and turning them into playthings.
William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist, knows this. He explained that his main purpose in writing his award-winning novel and screenplay was not to frighten his audiences or encourage occultism, but to share a message of faith:
I remember thinking, ‘Someday, somebody’s got to write about this, because if an investigation were to prove that possession is real, what a help it would be to the struggling faith of possibly millions, for if there were demons, I reasoned, then why not angels? Why not God?’
We must know the cold and darkness to recognize the light. When we face our fears, we can more fully appreciate Christ’s victory over sin and death. At Halloween, when we dance with goblins and spook with skeletons, we put our human fears in perspective.
We can laugh at weakness because we know Christ, Who alone triumphs over the evils of sin and death. We know the weight of our words when we sing: “Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:54-55)