My High Holy Day

All the decorations are up, folks are frantically shopping and preparing, and the anticipation is almost killing me as I await the brightest, best moment of the whole liturgical year: Halloween, of course.

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As far back as I can remember, this feast far outclassed Christmas on my personal calendar. No matter that Santa brought piles of gifts like the board game version of The Six Million Dollar Man, the Shrunken Head Machine, or yet one more encyclopedia set which I had begged for. None of this could compare with the fistfuls of crunchy loot that strangers dropped into our sacks, as we trooped up and down the stairwells of our tenements. What made those gobs of candy glow with a sinister excitement was the threat that some might be — must be! — laced with deadly poison, our apples stuffed with razor blades, by evil old crones who were eager to kill off the children. Or so my mother insisted, and made me swear not to pop a single kernel of black candy corn into my mouth that she had not personally inspected.

Conversely, given the kind of neighborhood mine was, the threat implied in “Trick or Treat!” was not to be taken lightly. I remember pondering with military thoroughness proportionate punishments for “mean” old ladies or puzzled aliens who offered us nothing — or worse yet, bizarre and improvised foreign items like figs or chunks of feta. The worst thing I ever did was to cover, in its entirety, some miser’s apartment door with dad’s shaving cream. I didn’t get the belt for doing that — I got the buckle. But no regrets; to me, a night of treats with no real threat of tricks seemed like miserable, liberal theology: a guaranteed Heaven floating pink and full of fairies over a desolate, empty Hell.

Of course, this holiday was born to commemorate the many nameless saints and prepare for the feast of holy souls in Purgatory — that scary, fascinating middle place that only we Catholics really believe in. That makes All Souls’ Day (November 2) the most distinctively Roman Catholic holiday in the calendar. The Orthodox pray for the dead, but if you accuse them of agreeing with Catholic teaching on this subject — as on any other –they will vigorously deny it. Likewise, their liturgy and traditions affirm truths suspiciously similar to the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, which they only began to deny once Rome declared them infallible. Had I the pope’s ear, I’d beg him to teach, ex cathedra, that Jesus really existed — if only to hear the monks of Mt. Athos find ways to deny it.

The Protestant Reformation was pretty much started in reaction against Halloween and All Souls’ Day; Luther nailed up his denunciation of indulgences on October 31, which is still in some places called Reformation Day. In my first Bad Catholic’s book, I suggest as an ecumenical gesture that readers Xerox the indulgence certificate in the book and sell copies to their friends. In England, as Eamon Duffy documents, the popular faith in Purgatory was so overpowering that last wills and testaments typically included generous grants to chantries, whose only job was to say Mass, over and over again (sometimes for hundreds of years), for the soul of the deceased. (My Irish side tells me the English knew they needed it.) King Henry VIII coveted the cash, closed the chantries, and shuttered Purgatory.

This left a gaping hole in the cosmos and the English psyche, as literary critic Stephen Greenblatt observed in Hamlet in Purgatory — which argues that this play reflected a national obsession in Shakespeare’s day: wondering where souls really went right after they died. And indeed, this play must have been seen quite differently by the Catholics and Protestants in the audience. (England was still split almost 50/50 at the time.) For Protestants, the import of Hamlet’s father’s ghost was pretty clear: He wasn’t from Heaven, and Purgatory was a Romish superstition, so the ghost must have come from Hell. Hence his call for Hamlet to kill his usurping uncle and avenge his father’s death was tinged with brimstone. For Catholics, it was at least plausible that the ghost had risen from Purgatory, and his call for rough justice one Hamlet ought to be heed. The endless dithering Hamlet indulges for four more acts could be seen as a metaphor for England’s back-and-forth between the poles of icon-smashing Calvinism and Catholic restoration.


Halloween provokes contention among American Christians to this day. Some homeschooling friends of mine confessed to me that they felt torn over whether or not to let their son dress up and go trick-or-treating; their Protestant friends kept telling them that this holiday was pagan or even Satanic. And given their theology, you can see their point: The souls of the dead are either in Heaven — in which case they’re not walking the earth and need not be appeased, represented, mocked, or even commemorated, depending on which reading you give to the way we Catholics appropriated old pagan customs that marked this time of year– or else they’re in Hell, and not worth remembering. Anyone who’s dead and suffering deserves it, and will go on suffering forever. There’s no sense in attracting his attention.

We, on the other hand, picture the Church in three unequal slices: a golden sliver, already enjoying beatitude; we dung-spattered soldiers still slogging through the trenches here on earth; and the vast military hospital where most of us hope to end up, a very big tent indeed where souls heal from the damage they did themselves on earth and are made whole enough to be welcomed into Heaven. When we do ourselves up in costumes and tromp through the streets on Halloween, we are marching in a kind of Veterans’ Day Parade in honor of the sinners who went before us, not yet into glory but into the painful, therapeutic shadow it casts outside its doors.

It’s our very comfort with the queerness and creepiness of the whole soul-body mystery that marks the Catholic faith off from its closest competitors. I grew up loving The Addams Family, without knowing quite why, until one day as an adult I realized: These people are an aristocratic, trad-Catholic homeschooling family trapped in a sterile Protestant suburb! Shunning the utilitarianism and conformity that surrounds them, they face the Grim Reaper with rueful good cheer, in a Gothic home stock full of relics. Indeed, I think I might have spotted several Addamses at the indult parish in New York City . . .

Of course, there are practical issues in marking this most solemn and Catholic holiday. Some pious folk insist on dressing their children only as saints or angels. This works very well for girls up to the age of ten and boys too young to pronounce the word “lame.” It’s cute for parents to doll their children up as friars like St. Francis or nuns like St. Therese, but the kids know perfectly well they’re being cheated: This holiday, the night before the Feast of All Saints, has always been our way of confronting the eerie, appalling fact of death — the uncertainty of our individual fates, our powerlessness before the scythe that cuts down the just and unjust alike. We want — we need — to face these fears, to play on the brink of the abyss, to shudder in “haunted” houses and whistle by the graveyard. The next day, the actual feast day, we should go to Mass and honor the saints — and maybe go to a graveyard, as they do in Catholic Louisiana, to clean up and decorate the place. But skipping the horror and jumping straight to the glory creates the same kind of empty feeling Shakespeare had, and tried to fill with Hamlet.

Now, I’m very much in agreement that two-year-old children should not be dressed as Satan. For one thing, it’s a little bit too realistic. Indeed, the fallenness of children, which Augustine bemoaned in his Confessions, is so evident to everyone that garbing the little tykes in the robes of absolute evil seems to overstress the point. Nor do we wish to trivialize the serious, deadly purpose of our infernal enemy — dragging each of us screaming to Hell. If you’re feeling puckish, it’s in much better taste to dress up your kids as Osama bin Laden, Annibale Bugnini, or some other of the Evil One’s lesser minions. If you must dress your boys as saints, choose military martyrs, canonized crusaders, or patriarchs from the Old Testament. One suggestion I made as editor of the Feasts and Seasons section of Faith & Family magazine was this: Dress up your daughters as early Roman martyrs, like Agnes and Agatha, and your sons as the Roman soldiers, gladiators, and lions that sent them to heaven. Stock up on lots of fake blood for the girls’ machine-washable tunics, and let the games begin! (Alas, this idea never saw print.)

Dust off that DVD of The Nightmare before Christmas, wake up the kids, and watch the expression on their faces. Trust me, it’s better catechesis and preparation for life than Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or (God forbid!) The Giving Tree. Read them to sleep with hair-raising accounts of Purgatory by Suffering Souls who appeared to solitary, starving nuns, like the classic Catholic children’s book Read Me or Rue It. Find a Latin requiem Mass for All Souls’ Day, invite your Facebook “friends” and pack the place, collecting plenary indulgences for the dead — in the hope that someday, others will do the same for you. If you’re impious enough to have read this far, something tells me that you’ll need it.

Let me end with a benediction: May all the blessings of the Halloween season descend upon you and remain with you forever. Or at any rate, until enough indulgences pile up, and you’re discharged from that vast V.A. hospital, hale and whole.

Now I’m off to down some pumpkin ale and watch Beetlejuice again.

  • John Zmirak

    John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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