I had to cancel next Monday’s class.
I had already asked my students: Out of 28, only six planned on showing up at all. The rest are either kept home by choice or by their parents.
There are two very different reasons why: one, kids and parents are afraid of gang activity on that night. It is, after all, the South Bronx.
Fair enough, of course. I wouldn’t want anyone to put themselves in harm’s way for any reason, much less a writing class on an open college campus.
The other reason is far more complicated: many students declare the day as “The Devil’s Birthday.” I’d never heard such a thing until I began teaching, but it is a widely-accepted belief.
For the record, not many of my students seem strictly religious – or even particularly observant – in an outward way. But the ones that do are varied faiths: Seventh Day Adventist, Muslim, Jehovah’s Witness, Baptist or Pentecostal. Some students are Catholic, a few are other denominations. Despite the differences in faith, though, they all believe that Halloween celebrates the devil’s birth – even the nonreligious kids.
While it doesn’t make logical sense if any of these kids know the Christian teaching, it’s not a surprising belief to hold, given the pagan origins of Halloween. One theory is that Halloween was derived from the Celtic celebration Samhain, the night wherein it was said the spirits of the dead returned to earth to wreak havoc on farmers’ crops. Another theory looks at Mexico’s Aztec culture, who celebrated The Lady of the Dead, which eventually became El Dia de los Muertos.
In ancient Rome, Feralia was the name of the day designated to remember the dead. In fact, the tradition of bobbing for apples is said to have begun here, when the goddess of fruit and trees, Pomona, was honored as well.
Although each culture seemed to have its own separate set of practices, there were two things in common: all happened on or near the last night in October, and all commemorated those who’d passed away.
All these theories give us some indication as to where the supernatural element of the night comes from. Samhain has an aspect – the possible ruin of crops – that might indicate why we designate one night for mischief. “Trick Or Treat,” the opposition of food (crops) to trickery (havoc) certainly makes sense.
In any case, if there are any origins to these practices, it seems rooted in nature. All the ancient cultures, being agricultural, ushered in the winter months with some sort of ceremony. The autumnal equinox, of course, is marked by longer nights, so a celebration at night makes sense. It’s also marked by the start of nature’s dormancy – a death, of sorts, to the lush greenery of summer – at least in the colder climates. Whether or not there is any real connection between the dormant period in nature and the rising spirits of the dead is unclear, but to my mind, it seems possible.
But back to the present day: Do my student have a point in their thinking? In participating in this holiday, are we paying homage to its pagan roots? Is it best to avoid the whole thing?
Even if we are over the whole pagan idea, what are we really celebrating? Gluttony? Deception? Vandalism? What is trick-or-treating really about – thinly veiled threats of “make with the candy or I egg your front porch”?
Doesn’t it all seem a little suspect anyway? Even in its most harmless version – costumed children parading around – it’s become an expensive, self-conscious attempt at one-upping the next kid with the better costume. Where do we, as Catholics, draw the line? Should we draw lines in the first place? Am I taking this all too far, over-thinking it? (It wouldn’t be the first time!)
Although I grew up in a Catholic home, we did celebrate Halloween in the standard, watered-down, non-pagan way: We dressed up – the hobo look was the most popular and took the least effort, grabbed a pillowcase – as we did in the days before plastic pumpkins –went Trick-Or-Treating in the neighborhood, and returned home when the pillowcases were half-full. (We did have some constraint, after all!)
We were not allowed to eat a thing until our mother inspected our candy for the urban-legend-dictated razor blades, needles, cyanide, or whatever danger was all the rage that year. We were then allowed to choose four candies to eat that night, and the rest were dumped into labeled bags that went straight into the freezer. We’d eat our candy around the dining table, gossiping about costumes and house decorations, and after a while, we went to bed.
The next day, decorations came down and we resumed our usual lives.
Because I went to Catholic School, though, the next day was a whole other celebration. Quite a bit of attention went toward All Saints’ Day. Interestingly enough, my school had us dress up as our patron saint every year. We then had to give a presentation on that particular saint, so it involved some research.
I don’t know if my school expected that we’d don our saint costume the day after Halloween as a substitute for not dressing up as a hobo the day before. No one ever talked about it. Besides, every last kid celebrated it, so it’s likely that even if my school didn’t like the idea, there was nothing they could have done to stop it. In fact, if I remember correctly, most of the costumes from the day before were somehow refashioned into the saint garb. A Dracula cape, for instance, turned into a priest’s robe. In retrospect, I’m remembering that all the St. Francis kids just re-used their hobo garb, which never seemed funny before, but now it makes me laugh.
I look back on it now and it reminds me of another two days in our Catholic calendar that emphasize the feast/fast idea: Mardi Gras, followed by Ash Wednesday. All Saints’ Day always seemed like such a somber, contemplative, serious day back then; and it came on the heels of a sugar-fueled romp the night before.
A Catholic loophole?
So is that the Catholic loophole? Is it OK for us to participate in a pagan-originated holiday if the next day is so, well, saintly-oriented? And at this point in history, do the pagan roots really matter? Are we better off keeping Halloween limited to a costume party? Leave a comment below and let me know your thoughts.
I plan on going to Mass for All Saints’ Day this year, but as far as what I’ll be doing on the night of Halloween…well, check this blog next Tuesday!