All Hallow’s Eve There is nothing more delightful than the bright eyes of a preschooler in costume, ready for an evening go trick-or-treating. However, in recent years, skepticism about Halloween has caused many to question how, and if, to celebrate it.
Here are points to consider from a Catholic perspective.
Historical: Halloween began in the Celtic countries, long before Christianity. The change from summer to winter was a significant time for the ancient Celts. The final harvest was gathered and celebrated, the dark and cold were coming on, and so their daily lives changed as work went from outdoor to indoor. Times of such changes were believed to have magical powers, and the fall of the year was seen as a time when the souls of the dead visited earth. There may have been bon fires and disguises used to scare off any ill-intentioned souls. Much later, Christian missionaries began converting the Celts, but of course, the people still experienced these seasonal changes and the need for the customs they had practiced. In the eighth century, the Church moved the feast of All Saints from May to November 1, and in the tenth century, created the feast of All Souls (November 2). Some historians feel these times were purposely chosen to incorporate the non-Christian customs of recognition of the souls of the dead with the Christian belief in heaven and an afterlife with God.
From then on, customs of the two intertwined in ways that were both holy and fun. For example, in medieval days, there was a custom called ‘souling’, in which people went from door to door, singing and asking for a ‘soul cake’, a sweet yeast bun with spices. In exchange, they promised to pray for the deceased family members of the household. Sound a bit like ‘trick-or-treat’? Other aspects of the Celtic festivities evolved until, in the United States and Canada, we have children wearing costumes to ‘frighten’ others and begging for treats. Skeletons and other symbols of death hang in windows of homes and stores near October 31st.
Many other cultures have festivities with similar emphasis on honoring ancestors around harvest time. In Mexico (as well as in other places), these same calendar days are called “Los Dias de los Muertos” (the Days of the Dead), in which families fondly remember their dead and enjoy treats such as sugar skulls. (See October 2007 of this column) If you or some children in your class celebrate this way, then don’t hesitate to bring these beautiful customs to the classroom.
Reasons to Celebrate: Preschool children need Halloween!
Preschoolers learn about adult life by pretending to be someone else. This play may reflect the practical side of life, such as being a doctor, a mommy, or a pilot. It may also reflect the psychological sides of life: is the child dressed as a princess trying on a sense of power, exploring her feelings about femininity, or both? Does playing with plastic dinosaurs give a child a sense of control over things bigger than him or herself, or does it serve to help confront something very scary in the subconscious? Halloween costumes offer kids the ultimate in this kind of play. How many of these costumes end up in toy boxes after Halloween and are then dragged out regularly during the rest of the year? We all need Halloween!
At some level we all must confront the fact of our mortality. Most of us do this on a subconscious level, preschoolers included. Halloween is about death. We see it in the withering of the flowers and the falling of the leaves. So at Halloween, we laugh at death. We hang up silly skeletons, use plastic skulls for candy dishes, put on costumes and eat junk. We do this and enjoy life on this side while we have it. For someday, we will all be part of that celebrated Communion of Saints.
Celebrating: Most great feasts of the Catholic Church are begun on the night, or “eve” before. The name “Halloween” comes from the words hallow or holy, and evening. So the Church has given us a two-day feast, and it starts on the eve of All Saints Day: October 31.
Of course, children understand Halloween early on, but teachers cannot presume they know about or understand All Saints and Souls Days. And, preschoolers’ attention will be focused on Halloween. So, go with it! Celebrate Halloween as close to October 31st as possible and have fun! Hang up those skeletons, don those costumes!
Then, take the next few weeks of November to learn about the Community of Saints so the children will come to understand the significance of the two holy days following ‘trick-or-treating.’ Help them embrace all of this, for it is part of their spiritual heritage!
Preschoolers in the Parish Community A true parish community involves everyone, many people who bring a plethora of talents, unique personalities and wisdom. As a member, you may be able to point out which person is good at organizing events, which ones are the most musical, who serves on the parish counsel, and even who brings the most delicious treats to bake sales. In a community that is cohesive, you may also know who is struggling with helping a sick relative, who has lost a job, who is in need of a phone call or a ride to an appointment.
However, when we think of our parish community, we tend to omit one population of our parish communities, that of our preschoolers. Yet they also bring talents, unique personalities and wisdom—a wisdom Jesus recognized. In addition, they delight most adults, and this can be a unifying factor itself.
As their teacher, you can arrange for the children to play a more active and visible part in a parish community. Here are some suggestions:
Arrange to have children decorate posters that announce upcoming bake sales and other fund raisers and events.
Look over your curriculum. Is there a gospel story the children will learn that will soon be read at Mass? Turn it into a very simple play (you narrate and the children ‘act’). They can wear signs that name their character (Zacchaeus, Peter, etc.) Offer to have the children perform this at the end of Mass.
Create art that reflects the liturgical season. For example, during Advent, have children give a visual meaning to the theme of ‘the people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light.’ Do this with large paper and plenty of purples and dark blues paints; when this is dry, give them yellows and whites to add to the ‘darkness’ (Is. 9:2). Hang these where adult parishioners can see them, with a note saying, “Advent” abstract created for your seasonal reflections by (children’s names). Just before Christmas, ask children to draw their renditions of the Nativity story and replace the Advent abstract with these drawings. Ask the person who makes announcements at Mass to point out these works of art and who created them.
Place classroom news into the weekly church bulletin, short information such as: ‘our three-year-olds have learned the Guardian Angel prayer and can tell you that you too are protected by angels!’. Adults will enjoy these bits of news but it will also help them make connections with children. The next time an adult parishioner meets a three year old at the doughnut table, they will have something to talk about and a friendship may be formed.
Invite parishioners who are grandparent age and high school or college age to join you in the classroom from time to time, creating a stronger inter-generational connection in your parish.
Respecting Life Respect Life concerns are numerous and too complicated for preschoolers. However, this developmental stage is a good time to introduce the concept of life as a gift.
Most young children love babies. Like adults, they may be responding to the irresistible appeal of babies, or perhaps, being not long out of babyhood themselves, they feel empowered when they compare themselves with those who are younger! In any case, celebrate babies to help preschoolers become aware of the preciousness of life. Have a “Babies are Great! Babies are Gifts!” celebration in a variety of ways this month.
Ask parents to tell their children something about the children’s babyhood (e.g. at what age they crawled or walked, got a first tooth, first word, first reaction to ice cream or green beans). Also ask parents to bring in photos of your students when they were babies. At group time, have children show their pictures. As a child holds up her photo, ask, “Who is this gift from God?” and allow the children to shout out the obvious name. Ask each child if he or she can tell something about themselves as babies. Some will do so gladly, but do not expect all will be able to do this.
Invite parents in the parish to bring their babies in briefly to class sometime during the month of October.
Provide dolls, blankets, and other props for imaginative play.
Many books for babies have wonderful photos of infants. Visit the local library and bring in these books to read with your students.
Talk about Jesus having been a baby once. Look at a picture book of the Nativity that has good illustrations of the Infant Jesus. Consider bringing out the crèche for a few days, then put it away again until Advent.
If your parish collects baby clothes for donation, show some of these items to your students. Then have them make “Welcome to our World” cards to send with the clothing.
During these activities, speak of babies as gifts from God. They are beautiful and precious, with the capacity to become three, four and five year olds, just like your students, who learn, laugh and love!
Reinforce this concept by celebrating guardian angels (whose feast day is October 2). Explain that every child is so important, God gives each a special angel. Learn the “Angel of God” prayer and also pray spontaneously in thanksgiving for this special guardian from God. Feast on angel food cake.