Halloween, Holy Time and our Longing for “Days that Are Different”

Sarah Clarkson, in her incredibleThis Beautiful Truth: How God’s Goodness Breaks into Our Darkness, describes her Holy Saturday during the Covid 19 lockdown of 2020.

She’d been out for a walk on the downs near her English home, where in the first phase of the pandemic she was allowed only one walk a day.

“The sun burned low and crimson in the western hills,” she writes, “a crimson orb in the purple dusk…Finally, something to mark this day as different.”

The grim reality of lockdown with little ones had left Clarkson emotionally depleted. On top of everything else in those vacuous days, Holy Week would be “left uncelebrated” in the Anglican parish where her husband is the priest.

We need “days that are different” to mark important events and holy time.

Deprived of them, time moves in monotony and we drift about unmoored. 

Clarkson’s lush prose brings that loss to life. The walk she describes took place on Holy Saturday, a day when, for the past five years, she’d:

Stood wide-eyed in the dusky shadows to watch the priests kindle a crackling glory of a bonfire from which they lit the great paschal candle, the symbol of the risen Christ.

I am writing today in late fall of 2021, the second year of the pandemic.

For the time being, pandemic restrictions have been mostly lifted. Today is Halloween and tonight little trick or treaters will be at my door with hopeful bags for holding fun-sized Kit Kat, Twix and Three Musketeers bars, Tootsie Rolls, Skittles, and cheap fruit chews. 

I’m a counselor at their school, and I love watching the little princesses, pirates and superheroes marching down the sidewalk at dusk. I delight in their excitement when they recognize me at my door with treats in hand. 

“Now I know where you live!” they’ll be reminding me tomorrow at school.

I’m not opposed to candy collection and costume capers, not by a long shot.

But I was intrigued when I heard a secular friend mock as “lame” anyone whose yard hasn’t been decorated with styrofoam tombstones and skeletons for the entire month of October.

His comment reminded me of the Advent decoration debates that happen among some Catholics during December. We fast before we feast, but what that looks like is a matter of prayerful discernment.

My friend’s jab at his “lame” neighbors got me thinking about the liturgical year.

It seems we humans need days that are different, rhythms to observe and moments to mark. If we don’t participate in the richness of liturgical rhythms, we’ll create replacement celebrations and wonder why others aren’t getting into the same spirit.

I often return to a worn copy of Gertrud Mueller Nelson’s To Dance with God: Family Ritual and Community Celebration when I want to refresh my memory or learn a little more about the holy days and seasons of the Church calendar. I was raised in a nonliturgical Christian denomination, and Mueller Nelson’s book was one of the first to introduce me to the riches of the liturgical cycle: Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter among its most famous seasons. 

As I pondered my ghoul-loving friend and his quieter neighbors, I found Mueller Nelson’s take on Halloween, or All Hallows Eve, insightful. 

The Church celebrates the feasts of All Saints and All Souls on the first two days of November. 

We honor those who have finished the race that is now set before us. First, on All Saints, we celebrate those whose holiness sets a unique example for those of us still fighting the good fight, and then on All Souls, we pray for the souls of our beloved dead and of those who have no one to pray for them.

And so, on the last night of October, just before these great solemnities, why not consider the “unseen, mysterious, otherworldly” aspects of the numinous, the things that a charming episode in Frog and Toad Together calls “Shivers”

I’m not suggesting engaging demonic evil here.

Many die-hard horror fans will tell you they don’t believe in any of it. They’ve never seriously examined the very real stories of experienced exorcists but they love how the macabre makes them feel. I get that. Gertrud Mueller Nelson asserts that adults are “not exempt from the need to engage and discharge all the feelings that this season calls up.” 

It is late autumn, and the mystery of death lies vividly before us. We mulch the fallen leaves that have left our trees bare. We uproot the garden’s rotting pumpkin vines and prepare for the snow that will harden the ground beyond tilling.

“The Church’s November feasts coincide with [autumn’s] mystery of apparent death and finality, Mueller Nelson writes:

We consider in these days the saints who have gone before us. We consider the souls of our forebears, known and unknown, who have died. Just as the harvest has been gathered into barns, as the children have been collected into schools, the saints and souls have been gathered as a heavenly harvest or brought before our consideration, because it is the nature of things.

But that’s not all.

With its “costumed disguises, its permission for mischief, its engagement of darkness, danger and the depths of yet unconscious mysteries,” Halloween is similar to Mardi Gras, the day preceding Ash Wednesday.

Both hold “a wild pageantry of the dark, unknown elements of the soul….The unacceptable impulses in our human nature insist on being admitted into our awareness…like messing up a sand castle so we can start anew or like dumping out all the drawers before sorting out and ordering them.”

At All Saints and All Souls, the reordering begins once more. Life is more than sugared-up revelry. As on Ash Wednesday before Lent, we contemplate our mortality. We recall family friends and relatives who have died, and look toward the hope that lies before us.

We reorder our hearts as we look to the saints who knew that love is all there is and who leaned into it by the grace that only comes from the Author and Finisher of our faith.

And in America, we prepare for Thanksgiving.

Then we order candles for December’s Advent wreath. We make lists and plan our Christmas celebration. More months will follow, and we’ll receive our ashes on the proper Wednesday. We’ll fast, pray and give alms at Lent, and God willing, we’ll stand at Holy Saturday’s fire once more.

We continue to mark holy time. We are grateful for “days that are different.”

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You might also enjoy Deathbed Conversions and the Power of God’s “Persistent, Patient Call” and Advent’s First Week: It is Better to Light One Candle.

What better month to follow Dante through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven than November? Check out Baylor University’s 100 Days of Dante and Dante’s Divine Comedy: Links to Lead You through “History’s Greatest Poem.”

Photos by Hedi Alija, Haley Phelps and Ruben Ortega on Unsplash.