A Message from Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s President, Ray Sweet.
Coco is my favorite. No, I’m not talking about hot chocolate. “Coco’ is the name of my favorite animated feature film that was released in November of 2017 to much-deserved critical acclaim. Six years in the making, its poignant and sensitive theme centers around the Day of the Dead, the Mexican version of the Catholic Church’s celebration of All Souls Day, November 2nd. Actually, it’s a two-day celebration that includes All Saints Day, November 1st. You might say the Church takes these days to remember the saintly and almost saintly dead. Mexican culture does the same.
What has come to overshadow these days of commemorating those who have gone before us is the celebration of Halloween—a day of costumes, candy, and pumpkins that very few still associate with the dead. It is interesting, and perhaps surprising, to learn that Halloween, October 31st, has its origins in an ancient Celtic practice going back more than 2000 years. For the Celts, this day marked the beginning of a new year — the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death. They believed that the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred on their new year’s eve. On the night of October 31st, they celebrated “Samhain,” when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. The people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off ghosts. All this according to History.com.
It has been a common practice throughout the history of the Church for pagan festivals to be “Christianized,” giving them a new religious meaning. In the ninth century, Pope Gregory IV designated November 1st as a time to honor all saints, and by the end of the 13th century, the Church had designated November 2nd as All Souls Day. Soon, All Saints Day incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain. The evening before was known as All Hallows Eve, later morphing into Halloween. Over time, Halloween evolved into a day of activities like trick-or-treating, carving jack-o-lanterns, festive gatherings, costumes and eating treats (one fourth of all candy sold in the U.S. is Halloween candy!).
Respect for the dead and honoring our ancestry occupies a prominent role in just about every culture in the world. In the U.S., from Native American burial grounds to our many Catholic cemeteries, these resting places of the dead are considered sacred, another indicator of the universality of this deep-seated sentiment. Many of us also visit the graves of our deceased loved ones on All Souls Day, Memorial Day, and other special times throughout the year, praying for the eternal repose of their souls. It’s a beautiful and touching gesture.
Speaking of beautiful and touching, if you haven’t already seen Coco, I highly recommend it. The visuals are stunning. And if you have heartstrings, be prepared to have them pulled. It’s also a perfect run-up to Halloween and the Day of the Dead. And no, I’m not being paid by Disney for this endorsement.