Halloween, Purgatory and the Danse Macabre

(Disclaimer:  How you decide to celebrate holidays in your home is your decision.  What others can incorporate with little trouble does not work as easily in a different family.  How ever you choose to celebrate the last day in October is what is best for your family.  The following is just a little food for thought.)

I will admit that I love Halloween.  Growing up as a Protestant it was simply a secular holiday.  Trunk or Treat hadn’t been invented yet and a most Halloween Costumes, unless you were lucky at begging your parents, came from your house and not a store.  There were still Halloween Parties and not “Fall Festivals”.  It was simply a day to dress up, roam around the neighborhood and score some free candy.

These days Halloween is crux of a great debate – safety, religion, consumerism and sexuality issues are often the hot topics on blogs and news sites around this time of year.  For me Halloween has become something a little deeper and more important with the addition of the full range of Hallowmas into my life.  I love having days set aside to remember those who’ve gone before us and All Saint’s Mass is one of my favorites of the year.

It is important to me, just as it is with Christmas, Easter and other Holy Days, to find a sensible balance between the secular and the Holy.  The balance that works between the two is different with each family, but for us there is still room for Halloween, Santa, All Saints and Jesus.

From my viewpoint a big part of the schism of Halloween falls between Catholic and Protestant lines.  The Catholics I know, though there are some that shun the day all together, seem to have an easier time finding a middle ground.  Often this is made easier with dual purpose Halloween and All Saints costumes.  The Protestants always seem to have a harder time.  Anything that has the glimmer of the supernatural and anything magical or mystical needs to be shunned.

This year I came across an interesting section about Halloween traditions (on wikipedia of all places, so we’ll just take everything with a grain of salt from here on in).  This article talked about the older traditions of Halloween when there was a belief that on Hallowmas, particularly All Hallow’s Eve, the souls of the dead that were trapped in Purgatory were allowed to roam around seeking either vengeance or a small chance at returning to their homes and their loved ones.  In France this was the Danse Macabre, whose original purpose was to show the fragility of life and vain glorification of our earthly lives.  One of the sources suggests that early Jack O’Lanterns were meant to guide these souls to the homes they were being celebrated in and that costumes were a way of disguising yourself from those who might have a bone to pick.

Vengeful souls aside I rather love the idea of these soul’s being called home for one more night.  I love the idea of a loved ones soul seeking out there home on a night when their stories are being share and their favorite meal being eaten.  Call me a romantic for the macabre I guess.

The blurb on wikipedia (I know, I know) also mentioned how, during the Reformation, Halloween was attacked as something wicked because of the theological differences concerning Purgatory.  These Protestants concluded that because Purgatory didn’t exist the things roaming around on All Hallow’s Eve couldn’t be the souls of our loved one or crotchety neighbors, but rather they had to be something evil and wicked.  Note that they didn’t come out and say there was nothing strange going on on October the 31st, but that because there was not intermediate state for souls awaiting heaven the things making that night a little more interesting had to be evil in nature.

Catholicism has a long tradition of the mystical side of religion.  We’re not talking seances and tarot cards, but rather an extraordinary way of connecting with God and this included things that were a little hard to explain or even believe.  This allows for a lot of wiggle room when it comes to possibly believing that the souls of your loved ones could be roaming around town in a few nights time. 

To me this wiggle room gives me the room to celebrate Halloween while still making room for the more serious days that follow.  We can make Jack O’Lanterns and set them out to potentially guide beloved souls back to their homes.  We can dress in costumes and roam around town and joke about the tricks those people might want to play on us and wonder if we’ve done a good enough job disguising ourselves.  We can buy candy, make treats and put up decorations that have special meaning while still having fun with the neighbors.

We can celebrate Halloween with the fun and frivolity that is expected from society at large while still honoring our traditions and making the Night about something a little bit deeper than plastic masks and sugar highs.  Just like a deeper celebration of Christmas requires a little belief that not only something special and a little out of our range of understanding happened a long time ago, but that something truly special continues to happen.  We can open our eyes and hearts to the idea that maybe, just maybe something a little deeper is happening on the Eve of the thirty-first of October.

5 thoughts on “Halloween, Purgatory and the Danse Macabre

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  1. Being Evangelical we did not celebrate or talk about Halloween. Our church always scheduled a “harvest party” on Oct 31 –what a strange coincidence. 🙂 It was a great time but I NEVER EVER got to dress up for Halloween or even go trick-or-treating. Can you believe it? My first time trick-or-treating was also my daughter's first time trick-or-treating when she was one.

    In my college Spanish classes we talked about and celebrated Dia de los muertos and I was totally fascinated with the celebrations and traditions.

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  2. Heh. Yeah. Protestants and Halloween. It's something.

    As a Mennonite/Evangelical who's becoming more in tune with Catholic, Orthodox, and Mainline traditions and practices, I would love to find a happy middle ground for Halloween. My only real objection to Trick-or-Treating right now is the candy. I don't want my daughter eating candy!! The “Harvest Party” at my church is crazy-crowded, kinda boring (no dressing up!) and STILL involves candy. So for the first year, I'm hosting a Halloween party for friends and kids to come and dress up and play games. We'll see how it goes.

    Thanks for the interesting history lesson. I love the idea of a time to reflect on those who have gone before us, too. As a Mennonite/Evangelical I CRAVE more connection with the mystical side of our faith. I hope to learn how to incorporate that into my life in general. I think Halloween provides an interesting opportunity for that.

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  3. Last year the candy wasn't too much of an issue. We let him have piece or two of chocolate when we got home and then it all magically disappeared that night and I don't think he noticed. I think it helps that we go to less than 20 house so the take home is minimal. We plan on doing the same thing this year – though it's calling for rain and freezing temps (classic Iowa Halloween) so we might just be driving to Grandma's and a few friends houses and calling it good.

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