All Hallows and the Day of the Dead
Archaeological evidence from prehistoric times and modern burial customs alike attest to the fascination and deep concern that human beings have always had regarding death. What happens to the dead? Do their bodies merely molder in the grave, or do they journey on to some place of rest or punishment? Do the dead continue to have a relationship with the living and is that relationship sinister or benign? What is the relationship of the dead with God? What is God's relationship with them? Burial customs indicate a frequently held concept that the dead need to take certain things with them into the next life: food, clothing, symbols of rank and status, even weapons, furniture, and means of transportation. Many cultures have taken it for granted that the dead return to their homes and their families from time to time, and there are those who believe that some of the dead never leave their earthly homes. In some cases, this has led to a belief that the dead must still be provided for. In other cases, it has led to fear and a concern to propitiate the dead in some way or to defend the living from the intrusion of the dead. Often, the living have sought the help of the dead in some way.
Christianity is not immune to this engagement with death. In fact, death and questions of the world to come stand at the very heart of the Christian religion. The death of one man and his resurrection from the dead and subsequent ascension into the heavens are the centerpiece of Christian faith and set the parameters for our beliefs about the state of the dead and the future of all mortals. In the northern hemisphere, the commemoration and celebration of the mysteries of life and death correspond to the changes of the seasons. The Paschal Mystery, celebrating the dying and rising of Jesus Christ, the Lord of life, is observed in spring, as the natural world emerges from the deathlike sleep of winter, with plants breaking forth in leaf and flower and flocks and herds giving birth. However, reflection on our death and the mystery of what follows comes in autumn, when the light is fading, the crops are gathered, and nature's winter sleep is at hand.
The last night of October and the first days of November are the days set aside for remembering the dead, and contemplating our own deaths. There can be little doubt that our Christian observances owe much to pre-Christian customs. Witches and ghosts, unseen demons and the souls of the dead wandering in the dark were very real to ancient people, and this should not surprise us. Even if it is nothing more than the fear of the unknown, fear of the dark is a common experience today, just as it was in more "primitive" times. The antidote to darkness is light and the rituals of the ancients at this time of year involved fire. In the age of wall switches that produce instant light in our homes and the glare of halogen street lamps that prevent our cities and towns from ever being completely in the dark (except during a power outage!), we may need to step back for a bit of perspective before we too quickly dismiss the quaint and ill-informed customs of the ancients as pagan nonsense. Indeed, as the days grow shorter and the hours of natural light are fewer, we would do well to reflect on the importance of light, literally and figuratively, in our lives. To shed light on a problem is to move towards a solution. To come out of the darkness into the light is to overcome fear and ignorance.
Even if we are skeptical about witches and demons, we still have to deal
with the reality of death--our own, as well as the death of ancestors,
family, and friends (and perhaps some enemies, too) who have gone before us.
These days are days to bring death and the dead into the light: to
acknowledge loss and move beyond it; to mourn, but not to despair; to regret
what needs to be regretted, but even more to celebrate what needs to be
celebrated; to remember the past and have hope for the future; to see life
as a gift and death as a new beginning; to pray for the departed and to ask
for the prayers of the saints, remembering that we are all bound together by
baptism into the communion of saints, in this life as well as in the life to
All Hallows' Eve - Hallowe'en
ghoulies and ghosties, and long-leggedie beasties, and things
that go bump in the night,
In Celtic Britain, October 31st was the feast of Samhain (pronounced Sow-en), a feast which marked the end of summer and the beginning of winter, the time of year associated with death. It was the time of year when livestock were butchered and when all kinds of foods were preserved and put away for the long winter. The Celts also believed that on this night the spirits of the dead walked abroad and were judged by the lord of darkness. There were bonfires to ward off the darkness, and the souls of the dead were invited into the light of the family hearth to share the warmth and the fruits of the harvest. It was, in fact, as much a celebration of traditional "family values" as it was an exercise in warding off evil. There were prayers for the dead who faced judgment, and there were also customs and rituals whose purpose was to look into the future. The menu for the feast included nuts and apples, which were also employed in divination to discern who would marry, who would die, and other forecasts for the coming year.
When the Church took over this annual holiday, it continued to honor the family dead, expanding the notion to include the departed members of the whole Christian family. The "hallows" are the "saints," so Hallowe'en is [All] Hallows' Even, or the Eve of All Saints' Day, which has been celebrated on November 1st throughout the western Church since the ninth century. The saints are those members of the family whom the Church recognizes as having moved already into the Church Triumphant, the company of saints in heaven.
There are other members of the family who are still waiting, the "faithful departed," members of the Church Expectant. Some Christians believe that these people are in a place called Purgatory, a temporary home where they continue to be purified before being received into heaven. Other Christians simply follow the teaching of St. Paul that understands these people to be "asleep" as they await the return of the Lord at the end of time. In either case, they are still members of our family, as needful of our prayers now as they were when they were still alive and among us. To keep us mindful of this fact, the Church has set aside a second day, All Souls' Day (i.e., the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed), on November 2nd.
Greater feasts of the Church begin with a vigil the night before, a time of preparation, usually including fasting as well as prayer, and often including other customs of a homely nature. All Hallows' Eve is the vigil which anticipates both All Saints' and All Souls' and the vigil has quite unabashedly incorporated and reinterpreted customs and traditions which originated in the pre-Christian observance of Samhain and similar festivals in other parts of the world. Particularly in regard to folk customs, the Church has always tended to be generous in finding ways to welcome and, if necessary, reinterpret and even reinvent folk customs.
The modern American custom of "trick-or-treating" is a case in point. In fact, it seems to have evolved from a combination of different customs, some pagan, some Christian. At Samhain, it was believed that the spirits of the dead and various other ghouls wandered abroad, evoking fear and wreaking havoc. One way of dealing with these demons was to dress up like them and lead them away from homes and villages--thus the custom of dressing in costume on Hallowe'en. Another way of dealing with them, particularly if they were believed to be the ghosts of family and friends, was to invite them into the light, to sit by the hearth and be warmed and fed--thus the custom of giving out treats. And this kind of custom was not limited to pagans. Christians, too, often believed that the dead were out and about on Hallowe'en. Whether they were saints who could bring a blessing on the house, or departed loved ones who were returning home, they were quite naturally welcomed.
Yet another custom that has a place in this is the medieval custom of "souling." Beggars would go from house to house asking for food (a "soul cake") in return for saying a prayer for the departed members of a household. Soul cakes were a form of shortbread with currants or other fruit. Tradition has it that one cook, aware that many of the beggars were in it for the free food, rather than the pious purpose of the custom, decided to reinfuse the custom with a proper religious sentiment. So, she cut a hole in the middle of her soul cake dough and dropped it into hot fat, inventing the doughnut. Every time the recipient bit into the circle of dough, representing the endless circle of eternity, he would be reminded of his duty to pray for the souls who were awaiting the call to eternal life in heaven.
In our opinion, the best costumes for
trick-or-treating are ones that evoke the world of spirits and the dead.
Children (and adults) should learn that death is simply a part of life and that,
for Christians, the
goal is to come in out of the darkness into the light where God himself will
warm us and feed us for ever. When receiving trick-or-treaters, and
especially if we have parties involving friends and their children who are
not part of the Church, we have an opportunity to make a dramatic and meaningful witness
In a society that has become fearful of terror and of random violence, we
can make a very different kind of statement. Our homes should be bright and
welcoming, not dark and scary, when trick-or-treaters and party guests
arrive, and the hosts should be happy and friendly, not threatening. If the
hosts are costumed, they should appear as saints, and the treats they offer
should include some that tell about Hallowe'en as a Christian celebration.
Doughnuts, of course, would be perfect, with a little card to explain their
meaning and a short prayer that the recipient would be encouraged to say.
One of the customs of Samhain that has survived into modern times, but has long since lost its ancient meaning, is bobbing for apples or one of its variations. Apples were used in pagan Britain for divination, particularly regarding matters of the heart. Young people would try to bite into an apple floating in a tub of water or hanging from a string. The first to succeed would also be the next person to marry. A more dangerous variation of this custom was to attach an apple to one end of a stick and a burning candle to the other end, and to tie a string to the middle of the stick and suspend it from the ceiling. The object, again, was to bite into the apple, with the added challenge of avoiding getting burned by the candle as the stick spun around. We do not recommend the latter variation, but ordinary bobbing for apples, whether in water or on a string, is a fun activity that makes use of the fruit of the recent harvest and connects us with our forebears who did not know of Christ, but still share our common humanity.
Hallowe'en is the Eve of All Saints' Day, and this should not be overlooked by anyone, whether child or adult. So, there should be Hallowe'en activities that highlight this fact. A simple activity is to find and tell the story of each person's patron saint. Your patron saint can be the saint whose name you share, or the saint of the day you were born, or even a saint that you have chosen for some particular reason. You can use the calendar on this page to find the saint for your birthday. Or you can search alphabetically on this page to find a particular saint. Other ways to enjoy the saints include having several participants dress as saints and tell their stories, or having people perform little plays or charades to learn about the saints or guess their identities. As always, your own creativity is the best source of activities that will work for your family or church.
Procession of saints: mosaics in the Basilica of San Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna
--from the Archbishop's Christmas sermon in Murder in the Cathedral, by T.S. Eliot
Early in the seventh century, the Pantheon, an immense round temple dedicated to all of the pagan gods of Rome, was rededicated by Pope Boniface IV in honor of St. Mary and All Martyrs. The anniversary of the rededication of that church was observed annually in Rome as a feast of all of the saints, known and unknown, who had no feast day of their own. A century later, the date of the feast was moved to November 1st and, finally, in the ninth century, the observance was extended to the whole Church.
The most important thing one can do on this day is to attend a celebration of the Holy Eucharist, in order to join with the entire Communion of Saints in singing the angelic hymn and sharing in the Sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood, which knits us together "in one communion and fellowship in the mystical Body of Christ our Lord." It is a good day to sing or say the Litany of the Saints, calling on many of the saints whose names we know to pray for us. Litanies work best in processions. If your procession is in a church, it might stop for special prayers at statues, pictures, or symbols of saints. Your church may not have statues of saints but chances are that you have stained glass that depicts some of the saints. Many saints have their own special prayer, or collect, that can be prayed at these stops in the course of the procession.
Another idea for a procession comes from Mary Reed Newland who suggests that members of the family each dress up or carry symbols of their patron, or favorite, saint, and have a procession to the dinner table on All Saints' Day. Here are some excerpts from her description of her family's dinner procession:
"Monica wears a veil, something black or grey, symbolic of widowhood.... Jamie carries as many of the symbols of pilgrims as he can find, because St. James the Great (the tall) is always dressed as a pilgrim.... John has difficulty deciding which St John to be, but usually ends up as St. John the Baptist. One Hallowe'en we had a charade of St. John the Baptist. A mysterious maiden came dancing in with a jack-o'lantern on a platter.... Peter rattles keys...and the fishing pole with the yellow fish dangling.... Stephen wears a gorgeous crown.... He also carries a rock.... He always says: "This is for St. Stephen of Hungary, and this is for the St. Stephen what got rocks thrown at his head.... Philip carries a basket of bread to recall that St. Philip doubted that the five thousand...could be fed.... It is beautiful to have each one carry a lighted candle--his baptismal candle if he has one." (The Year and Our Children, pp. 268-270).
We think carrying the baptismal candle is a bit of genius. What else do we do with them after the baptism is over? They go in a box or a drawer and generally are forgotten. But the saints are people who were "the lights of the world in their generations" and by baptism we, too, receive the light of Christ and are one with the saints in the Mystical Body of Christ. In the Sarum (medieval English) baptismal liturgy, when the priest gives the candle to the newly baptized, he says, "Receive a flame, burning and without fault: Guard your baptism, keep the commandments, that when the Lord comes to the wedding you may meet him together with all the saints in the heavenly hall." We must not be like the foolish virgins who did not have enough oil and had no light to share when the bridegroom came.
In To Dance with God (Paulist Press, 1986) Gertrud Mueller Nelson suggests another All Saints' Day activity, a time line of the saints: "We created a long time-line on shelf paper.... At the start of the line we drew Adam and Eve under the tree of knowledge. At the center, we drew a cross rooted in a manger bed. At the end, we drew a symbol of Christ in glory.... People came before the group and we played twenty questions with them until we caught the saint or important personality they wished to depict. After we guessed the name, we learned some more about this person. Then a sign or a symbol was drawn on the time-line in the century this patron saint or namesake lived.... We saw how each saint prepared the way or participated in the mystery of the incarnation or contributed to the fulfillment of time. We saw that we were to become the saints of the twentieth century...." (p. 226) We have started our own version of a time-line of the saints below. Can you identify the saints we have included? (If you cannot see them too well, click on the image to see a larger copy.) Needless to say, a complete time-line of the saints would need a lot more web space than we could manage. Nevertheless, who would you like to add?
All Souls' Day - Soulmas
All Souls' Day
|This is an important day
which has fallen out of fashion. We live in an age which does its best in so many
ways to deny the reality of death. The word itself is
avoided at all costs. No one dies any more. We "lose" them.
They "pass away." Or in clinical settings they "expire." We
do not bury the dead or have funerals. We have "memorial
services" at which fond remembrances, extended eulogies, and
anecdotes about the deceased replace the preaching of the Gospel. The effect of
this is to avoid not only the reality of death and
legitimate grief, but also the truly comforting message of
the Gospel. We smile
condescendingly at melodramatic scenes such as that painted
by Bouguereau at the left, congratulating ourselves that we
do not give way to such maudlin performances, while all the
while we fight back the tears that we need so much to shed.
There is no doubt that grief, like any other emotion can
be overdone. But the truth is that there is a place for
realism with regard to death. For Christians that realism
includes both grief and a profound hope that tempers grief
in time and allows us to move forward. All Souls' Day is an
occasion to address our grief at a distance from its first
intrusion. And it is an occasion to recover the context of
the Gospel that puts grief into a proper perspective.
St. Paul wrote, "For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:38-39) If these things, which include death, cannot separate us from God, and if we are all members, one with another, in the Mystical Body of Christ, then we are assured that death cannot separate us from one another, either. We remain bound together with loved ones in a bond that is deeper than the ties of blood or human love. We are bound together through the shedding of Christ's blood in a love that transcends any mortal bond. Believing this allows us to grieve without despairing. It assures us that we continue to be in communion and fellowship with those we love. And it gives us reason for the expectation of eternal life with those we love.
The ancients were not wrong in their desire to maintain contact with the dead. They were not confused about the reality of death, but neither were they stuck in unresolved grief. Our faith gives us all the more reason to engage death and the dead in an open way and to apply our faith. If possible, we should participate in the Eucharist and receive the Sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood which is "a foretaste of the heavenly banquet." We shared that Sacrament in this life with those who have died and it continues to be a tangible link between us, even in death. If we are unable to attend the Eucharist on this day, we may still pray for those who have died, and there are other ways to maintain a tangible link.
We believe in the resurrection of the body and it is a mistake to think that the bodies of the dead no longer have any connection with the people they continue to be. We do not know how God will raise the dead. We also do not know exactly what state they are in. But the fact that we bury their bodies with reverence and maintain the graves and cemeteries and columbaria where they rest suggests that we really do understand that every person remains connected in a significant way with his or her body. So, another good All Souls' Day activity is to go to the cemeteries and other resting places of family members and others whom we love. We can spend time tending their graves, providing fresh flowers, remembering stories from their lives, and even talking with the dead. For those who are still grieving, this can be a kind of therapy. But it can be a valuable experience for everyone. Children who are taken on the All Souls' Day visit to the graves of their family members will grow up knowing death more as a companion they recognize than as a stranger and an enemy and they will be better prepared to deal with death--both the death of those they love, and also their own.
All Souls' Day is a good day to reflect
on the way we deal with death, dying, and the dead.
Click here to
read an essay on the burial of the dead.
Ofrenda (Altar) for Mexican celebration of Día de los Muertos (Day
of the Dead)
In Central America, Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, brings all of this right into the home where families set up an altar (ofrenda) to be a focal point of their celebration of All Souls' Day. Typically, items on the ofrenda include pictures or statues of saints (Our Lady of Guadalupe is popular), as well as photographs of dead relatives and friends. There are also candles, skeletons and skulls made of sugar and often arrayed in wild costumes, papel picado (elaborate tissue paper cutouts), marigold flowers, toys for children who have died, and the favorite foods and drinks of the deceased adults, including tequila and other liquid spirits that are shared by the living. The food is shared by those who gather to celebrate the living and the dead. There is also a special bread, pan de muertos (there is an excellent recipe below). The tone of the celebration that ensues is joyful. It is a family reunion and there are many stories to tell, many good times to relive. Sometimes, there is even a mariachi band and fireworks--a far cry from the creepy demons who once dominated the night.
The Day of the Dead is easily adaptable into non-Hispanic settings. It is a very homely version of All Souls' Day and we recommend it as a wonderful way of bringing together two cultures that have different customs but a common understanding of the ultimate goal. It not only brings death home, it completes the domestication of death that began when the risen Lord appeared for the first time in the Upper Room on the first Easter. When we can welcome death into our homes, and laugh and joke with it and about it, we know that we have truly put on Christ who, in an old carving over the entrance to his own sepulchre, is seen dancing on his tomb. The spirit of the Day of the Dead is captured in a modern hymn by Sydney Carter, The Lord of the Dance:
I danced on a Friday and
the sky turned black;
The dance signifies the restoration of the order of creation and the joy of all creatures when death no longer holds sway. The Day of the Dead does not look backwards. Rather, it looks forward to the day when the living and the dead are reunited and dance together with the Lord of the Dance in the Kingdom of God.
Ofrendi, and details, at the National
Hispanic Cultural Center, Albuquerque, New Mexico,
Decorated sugar skulls representing
the murdered women of Juarez. Detail from an ofrenda
Pan de muertos