Bang! The front door closed with yell.
“Mom! It’s Spooky Season! It’s time to decorate!” my son announced in great excitement as he came into the front hall. Rushing past me, he ran up the stairs to start getting the Halloween decorations down from the attic. Was this an elementary aged boy, looking forward to candy and costumes? Nope. He was in his early 20s, home from college for the weekend, and just as excited about Halloween as he was 10 years earlier. Watching him work, I once again took a moment to think about this holiday.
Over the years, Halloween has presented me with quite a quandary. What’s the right way to celebrate it? Should it be ignored? Should we jump in and enjoy it? Should we ignore all the ghosts and ghouls we see and focus on the next day, All Saints, and those in heaven?
The Friars of the Atonement refer to October 31 as the Vigil of All Saints. I think that’s a helpful way to approach it because that brings out the reality of the feast day, namely its connection to the triumph of the saints over sin through participation in the saving work of the Trinity. If we look carefully, we can even see that same slow journey in our own lives, and we can see it especially clearly at Halloween.
A few years ago, I realized something. There seems to be a progression of sorts in the costumes that children choose to wear on October 31st. Up until roughly the age of 7, most children, if given a choice, will choose happy, sweet costumes of princesses, knights, superheroes and the like. This is natural, because it reflects their stage of development. They are still in the age of innocence. But around 7 or so, called the “age of reason,” when children come to the realization that there are good things and bad things, in and of themselves, and they likewise understand they themselves can make good or bad decisions, the costumes gradually change. They get a little, or maybe a lot, darker. This is when the ghosts, vampires and zombies start to appear.
The age of 7 is also the age for First Reconciliation. Children are taught that there is sin in the world, “out there,” and some of that same sin is in us, “in here.” They intuitively understand this. They know that sin is outside of them, because they remember being hurt by a friend or family member or some life situation. They also know those tendencies are inside them, because they themselves have hurt a friend, or family member or some other life situation.
But it is rare that we are wrestling with every kind sin. Most of us struggle with the same two or three impurities, and Halloween gives us a chance to name those tendencies, to look at them in the mirror, see them and recognize them, much like the story of Rumplestiltskin. Dressing up at Halloween can make the invisible visible, and the unseen seen, so that it can be recognized. Once we know the name of the enemy, we can start to overcome it. Over the years, I’ve invited parents to think about the costumes their kids choose, and then see if those costumes connect with their interior struggles. Here are some examples of that:
- One child struggled with anger and wrath. He was either Hulk or the Thing for years.
- One child loved to be a ghost. She was constantly trying to hide and not be seen.
- One child was a vampire. He struggled with feeling overlooked and being in the shadows.
- Another child dressed as a witch for years. She had a tendency towards secrecy, spitefulness and bossiness.
The point of this is not, obviously, to glorify our impurities, nor is it a reason to be naive and believe that everything people do on October 31st is harmless. We know that there are some things that happen in the dark that we should stay well clear of. But for those of us, and our children, who are seeking to follow the Lord, this evening gives us a chance to make an honest assessment of who we are, so that we can remove what is keeping us from entering the “cloud of witnesses,” the saints who pray for us and for who we thank God for on the day after Halloween. Ultimately, as we profess at every Mass, it is Christ himself who “takes away the sin of the world,” the sin outside and inside us, which is why attendance at Mass on November 1st is an obligation, and very important. We show up with our impurities at every Mass, but we can hopefully have a clearer understanding of what those impurities are, and how to be cleansed of them, by participating in the journey of the Liturgical Calendar, including Halloween.
The good news is that if we accompany our kids on this journey, allowing them the space to do enough self-reflection so that they can identify what they struggle with without being overwhelmed by it, they eventually make their way through it. As they grow and mature, the costumes change again. Sometimes the princesses actually reappear, but they are older, grown-up versions. Athletic uniforms might take the place of zombies and vampires, although there is usually still some type of fake blood and/or bandages. In other words, there is a recognition that sin is real, but it doesn’t have to define them. In fact, in a child who has journeyed well, there is a great deal of hope about their costumes.
Halloween shows us that sin is real. It’s not fantasy. It’s not make-believe. It exists, and it exists Out There just as it resides In Here. But, if we are courageous enough to name our sin, and to accompany our kids in identifying their sin, the impurities separating us from God, we can also walk through them, leaving them behind to join in the dawning of the Kingdom of God, celebrating together the next morning on All Saints Day, November 1st. Halloween shows us that sin, destruction and death, while real, do not have the final word. We can keep going and pass through all of them to come out on the other side, into the glory of heaven. That’s the hope of All Hallows Eve, what we celebrate on November 1st, All Saints Day, and what we pray for on November 2nd, All Souls Day.
This Halloween, whether you dress up or not, take a look in the mirror and ask yourself: What do I need to name, what do my kids need to name, so that we can divest ourselves of them?