Thursday, October 27, 2011

Recapturing the Christian meaning of All Hallows Eve

Denver Catholic Register:

Bags of candy, spooky goblins, costumes and glowing jack-o’-lanterns are some of the first images Halloween draws up in the minds of children and families.
Yet behind Halloween and other secular holidays lies a rich tradition of Christian history, one that the Archdiocese of Denver wants to preserve and emphasize in its Catholic schools, said Richard Thompson, superintendent of the Archdiocese of Denver’s Catholic schools.

“When I’m asked about celebrating Halloween, I encourage that we don’t do that for a lot of reasons,” said Thompson, who added that there is no policy on how schools should celebrate it.

Instead, secular holidays should become a teachable moment, he said, to “help kids understand the difference and alternative to these holidays and cultivate in them a love for Jesus.”

Oct. 31 is Halloween, which is short for All Hallows Eve, the vigil for All Hallows also known as All Saints’ Day. The All Saints’ Day feast is celebrated Nov. 1 followed by All Souls’ Day on Nov. 2.

Looking back in history, the Celtic order of Druids would salute Samhain, the “lord of the dead,” during a festival Nov. 1 in the second century B.C. Samhain was believed to gather and release to heaven the souls of the year’s dead that were confined to the bodies of animals for punishment of sin, according to Henry Schuman, author of “Halloween: Through Twenty Centuries.”

Some early Christian traditions of Halloween date back to the fourth century, when it was English custom to knock on doors and beg for “soul cakes” and in return promise to pray for the dead of the household, according to the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Christians had long been in the practice of remembering the martyrs before Pope Gregory IV made a papal decree in 834 to mark Nov. 1 as a festival to be observed by the entire Church. All Souls’ Day was later added to commemorate the souls in purgatory.

“Although some people say Halloween was originally not a Christian feast day, like so many things, we baptize the holiday so the Gospel of Christ can be part of people’s lives,” said Anthony Lilles, professor of American Church history at Denver’s St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

In light of its Christian history, some principals at local grade schools adjusted the way Halloween is celebrated at their school.

Principal Kathleen Byrnes at Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic School in Wheat Ridge allows the younger children to dress up in appropriate costumes—no weapons or frightening masks—and hold health-conscience parties in the classrooms while the older children participate in a Halloween dance.

“Halloween is not one of our favorite holidays, but it is a tradition for kids” Byrnes said. “I don’t like to take that away from them.”

Like other principals, she has put an emphasis on learning and emulating the lives of saints. The fifth-grade students at Sts. Peter and Paul School prepare for an event called “Saints Alive” when they dress up as their assigned saint and give an oral presentation to other students.

Similarly, each class at St. Mary School in Littleton is assigned a modern saint to research. Children then create posters about the saints that are hung in hallways, said Principal Greg Caudle.

“The idea behind that is as students walk through the hallway, they will have an opportunity to learn more about saints, particularly saints they haven’t studied in the past,” Caudle said.

This year, Father Piotr Mozdyniewicz, pastor of Shrine of St. Anne Parish and administrator of the school, decided children may only dress up as saints, Thompson said, although they may still have classroom parties.

“Unfortunately, costumes used to be relatively cutesy, harmless kinds of things but now many of the costumes move into worshiping or depicting the wrong things,” Thompson said.

According to a survey in 2009, making such a restriction on children’s costumes is being “overly pious.” Seventy-nine percent of the 255 readers of U.S. Catholic agreed that Halloween is just a fun holiday.

“Some people think we’re robbing kids of something,” Lilles said about having children dress up as saints. “My experience is we add to children’s experience. …

While the rest of culture is celebrating death and fear and all things gruesome, we’re celebrating life, joy and the beautiful lives of some wonderful people.”

Instead of letting the commercialization of holidays overtake Christian traditions, families should take back Halloween and make it part of the joyous reminder of the Church’s heroes, he said. It has the added benefit of challenging children to learn about saints’ lives and design creative costumes, he said.

“It helps put the emphasis on preparing for All Saints’ Day for the kids,” Lilles said. “It also changes the whole game when you have Blessed Mother Teresa or St. Therese of Lisieux … coming to your house (to trick-or-treat). It creates all kinds of wonderful conversation and it builds a sense of community.”

Families should know the Christian celebration of Halloween was not about witches or ghosts, but was a time of joyful feasts remembering the resurrection promised in Christ, Lilles said. There’s evidence that trick-or-treating was traditionally a time when families went out the night before to gather ingredients for a great banquet with the community, he said.

“If we want to recapture Halloween as a Christian feast day, we need to capture that spirit,” Lilles said.

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