This is a story from a few years ago.
When I asked why the two-year-old was wailing, the five-year-old said, “She is crying because Halloween no longer exists in this house!” Their nine-year-old sister surmised the ghoulish end of Halloween in the Trasancos household because my husband and I nixed trick-or-treating that year. We thought we would teach the kids not to indulge in candy and instead to focus on holiness. We told them we would dump a small amount of candy on the table and save them the trouble of all the walking and begging. For some reason they failed to see the brilliance in our plan. Plus, we live remotely, and we decided it was too hard to take five small children out in the cold rain and herd them from door to door among strangers just for candy. So with firm resolve, even crying and drama did not move our settled minds. Truly, for the kids it probably did seem that Halloween was dead to us forever.
Still basking in our brilliance and hoping to inspire holiness, my husband and I decided to lighten the burden of having such boring and terrible parents by telling them about a new adventure, something we had just learned about, that we were going to do the next day.
“Kids, we’re going to pray at the cemetery to try to obtain a plenary indulgence. Isn’t that exciting! Halloween is not just about getting candy. It is Catholic. A ‘hallow’ is a holy person, a saint. On November 1st we celebrate saints, and if we pray for the dead our prayers will help us and them get to Heaven.” Alas, our announcement did not help much. Our piles of candy did not help. The children missed trick-or-treating in 2013, and that was that. So it came to be that our poor, withered, un-costumed children eyed us like we were monsters, went to bed, the month of October ended, and the glorious month of November dawned.
True to our word, we drove to the cemetery the next day. The one we visited was old. Some of the people lived during the American Revolution when fighting for freedom meant more than complaining about the news. At first the kids, trying to squeeze whatever fun they could get out of it, misbehaved and had to be reminded of basic graveyard reverence.
“Don’t climb on any tombstones.”
“Don’t walk on the graves.”
“Don’t run. Don’t yell.”
“For crying out loud, put the flowers down. Don’t steal anything.”
But as children are wont to do, they soon became curious. They were faced with the reality of death. They started to read the names. The people started to be real to them. They found whole families laid in a row, and they were struck by the tiny graves of infants who would have grown old and died anyway had they lived. Most of the graves were abandoned with tilted tombstones washed nearly blank by weather, the words unreadable and a reminder that all things indeed pass in this dust-to-dust life.
“Why aren’t there flowers on these old graves?”
“The earthly remains of these men, women, and children have been laying in this spot longer than they lived on earth. No one is left to visit them.”
As I said that, the realization even caught me. No one is left to visit them… For our ten-year-old who was old enough to comprehend the numbers, the experience was overwhelming, and she cried. We live, and we die, and we never know if a grave will mark our resting place or if anyone will visit us and pray for us 100 years from now. We have no control over what happens to our bodies after we die. In time, the vast majority of us will simply be forgotten. The seven-year-old wandered off and knelt alone by a grave to decorate it with some weeds she picked. Our youngest just ran because that’s what little boys do; they run. He was life running among death, proof that life goes on.
We all learned a lesson that year, including us parents trying to raise holy kids. Caring for the body is one thing, but the care of the everlasting soul matters far more than satisfying appetites of the body, which left me much to think about as a mother. Are my priorities straight? Was I doing enough? Am I doing enough?
We realized something else that year too. We made new friends in those departed souls, and in the span of our visit, we learned to care about them. The dead are real. They need our prayers. People we cannot see or touch or name need out prayers. On the way home my husband leaned over and said, “Let’s do this more often.” I suggested we bring flowers the next time so the kids could decorate the forgotten graves. And just like that Halloween became a celebration of communion that stays with us throughout the year.
Today on October 31, 2015, my husband and I have matured as parents too. There are festive plans for costumes, candy, friends, and parties, a full-blown family outing. The children are older and we all are still trying to be holier. My husband and I did not dump candy on the table in 2014 and call it a night again. We rolled up our sleeves, helped them dress up, and walked with them until bags were full of candy, reminding them at every door to say “Thank you.” Later, we helped them eat the candy. We also prayed. The kids know there is a time to play and a time to pray, and they know we do both. Does Halloween still exist in our home? Yes, it does, but I guess you could say it does not exist as the indulgence it was before.
These pictures are from 2013.
More about indulgences here and in The Enchiridion Of Indulgences (1968). Remember, to receive the full indulgence a person must be free from all attachment to venial sin. This is difficult to fulfill, but even if it is not, a partial indulgence will be gained. For a great essay about why Indulgences are no need to freak out, visit the Little Catholic Bubble by Leila Miller.