October 29, 2007

Excerpted from The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Good Living.

Halloween has a very long pedigree, reaching back into Celtic pagan days, when peasants believed that the times which marked transitions between the seasons”€”such as the autumn equinox, which happens around this date”€”opened the door between our world and the Unseen realm of the spirits. For a few days every year, the dead could walk the earth again, and the eerie powers possessed by fairies, witches, demons and other “undocumented residents” were greater than ever. They could kidnap children, blight crops, poison wells, and bring on plagues with impunity on this night, which the Celts called “Samhain.” In part to fool the spirits by passing as one of their own, country folk would dress up as these creatures themselves. They might also have hoped to placate these enemies of mankind”€”or even to make fun of them. It was this last meaning that Christian missionaries decided to give the holiday as they spread the new faith through old Europe. With few exceptions, monks and preachers gave their new converts permission to keep up their old traditions”€”provided they were willing to instill them with new meaning.

To help the newbies along, the Church created feasts of its own to fit the season: The Feast of All Saints, which marked the special activity of friendly spirits from the Other Side; and The Feast of All Souls, which gave people the chance to pray for their dead friends and family, to help them climb into Heaven. Even today, it’s much easier on this feast than at any time throughout the year, through a few simple prayers, to help your dead relatives escape the sufferings of purgatory”€”assuming you want to help them.

In America, this feast has been commercialized, and lurched backwards quite a ways towards its pagan roots. It’s hard to see how gays parading through Greenwich Village dressed as Britney Spears has much to do with Purgatory. But in other lands and certain regions, the day is still marked with celebrations that carry a religious punch. Cajuns and residents of New Orleans clean and decorate family gravesites, then picnic atop their long-lost relatives. Mexicans revive the gorier elements of their country’s heart-rending¹ Aztec past, celebrating their “Day of the Dead” by dressing up as skeletons, making cookies they call “Dead Man’s Bread” and decorating their homes with “luminarias,” candles inside paper bags marked with skulls and other uplifting insignia, that flicker, dangerously, all through the night.

Some Catholics in America have reacted against the paganizing trend by abandoning Halloween altogether. Influenced by their Evangelical neighbors, they’re giving up on the hard work their ancestors did to harness the coolest parts of paganism and put them to work, and I think that’s a shame. Others try to sanitize the day by dressing their kids up as saints and angels. This works pretty well for some of the girls, and the boys under 5, but after that it gets old mighty quick. The only way to keep such a party interesting is to dress the boys as soldier saints, warrior archangels such as St. Michael, or the Angel of Death sent by God throughout the Old Testament to smite the Egyptians. Or else-and here’s an idea I’m really proud of”€”to let the kids play out the martyrdom scenes of the early Church, with the more outgoing boys done up as Roman soldiers, lions, and dragons”€”whose job it is ravage and slaughter the girls, dressed up as virgin martyrs. Get enough Roman helmets, fresh white togas, and fake blood packets, and you can make Halloween mighty interesting to the most jaded American boy. (Get plenty of plastic swords.)

For impressionable adults, however, such doings might come across as kinky. (Do you really want to watch your wife “devoured” by your accountant, dressed as a lion?²) So I’d like to offer my own idea for celebrating Halloween which is both spooky and meaningful”€”and unforgettably delicious. I call it my “Halloween Purgatory Soiree.”

In case you’ve forgotten, Purgatory is that awkward transitional phase most of us (we hope) go through en route from earth to heaven. Call it “metaphysical puberty,” since it’s marked by all the discomfort, awkwardness, and growing pains we associate with early teenagers and the newly dead. (One of my favorite religious films, Beetlejuice, depicts this nicely.) Like a teen, you’re entering a strange new world”€”and you’re not too happy about what’s happening to your skin.

The doctrine of Purgatory is pretty simple: When most of us die, our souls are in dirty underwear. In fact, it’s stuck to our skin. And we could really use a couple of long hot baths. So God set up a kind of spiritual car wash for us to clean off all the crud we’ve accumulated over seventy mediocre (or twenty-seven really eventful) years. Dante, in his Purgatorio, saw the realm of purification as a mountain, around which sinners march in a spiraling path upward to heaven. Around and around each sinner would trudge, on a different story according to his favorite sin, hearing endlessly rehearsed every thing he had ever done wrong, and what he should have done instead. (It’s like slogging your way to the top of a sixth-floor walk-up”€”to have dinner with your parents.)

You can take this sobering reality and have some fun with it, by turning the home into “Purgatory for a Day,” and filling it with your very favorite sinners. Here’s how.


Make your front door the gateway to the spooky realm of purgative suffering by hanging the entrance, inside and out, with thick black velvet curtains. Keep the lighting dim, and improvise a fog machine with dry ice and a fan-or clouds from your favorite hookah pipe.³ Cover all the windows with black crepe paper, and rope off whole sections of the house with crime scene tape. If you have wooden floors, play a game with the kids, where you sketch the outlines of their little “corpses” on the floor. The atmosphere you want is something like a funeral parlor”€”run by the Addams Family. Drape all the mirrors with black or purple paper, and pull out the red candles you have left over from Pentecost.

You should announce that tonight costumes are mandatory”€”and they really should be thematic. If you want to be true to Dante, dress up the hostess as an angel and the host as the poet Virgil (a toga will do, with some bay leaves stapled”€”no, taped”€”to his head).

Of course, you won’t want to be “true to Dante””€”what kind of a geek are you? Instead, you’ll probably dress as some great sinner of history, preferably one whose costume is easy to make. Attire the lady of the house as glamorously as a queen, with a homemade tiara-and a blood line of lipstick around her neck, to suggest Marie Antoinette, or Mary, Queen of Scots. Gussy up the host as some famous megalomaniac, like General Patton or Jim Morrison. Attire the kids as the tiny devils who punish sinners. (Depending on your kids, this may strike too close to home.) Or have fun costuming each child as the deadly sin you know all too well he likes to indulge. Your sadistic son can carry some implement of torture, such as the TV remote. Your goth daughter can wear”€”whatever she would to a first date. And so on.

Tell every guest to come as his favorite dead sinner, without telling you who it is. And here’s the key to the fun-everyone should show some sign of suffering: grimace lines painted on the face, some ashes smeared on the clothes to suggest he has been burning, or a t-shirt from a Bible camp. Purgatory isn’t like Woody Allen’s sex-addict daydream of Hell in Deconstructing Harry”€”an S&M club full of buxom, sweaty women, with Billy Crystal telling jokes. It’s more like one of those Caribbean reform schools where suburban parents send their unmanageable kids. But tonight is their Senior Prom!


If your guests actually do play along and show up as historical sinners, don’t ask their “identity” when they arrive. That’s the key to the game you’re going to play as you nibble on dinner”€”a cocktail spread of seven courses, one for each Deadly Sin. It’s a guessing game, in which each guest, in turn must answer questions about what he did, what were his vices, etc. The object is to figure out who each guest is supposed to be, and what crimes he is “in for.” Call it “prison interrogation” to get the boys interested.

Food: The Seven Deadly Courses

Pride: Black Caviar, arrayed with chopped red onions, sour cream, toast points and lemon wedges on your finest silver tray.

Envy: Something thin and green”€”Roasted Asparagus with Lemon and Garlic.

Gluttony: Something WAY too fattening”€”Dates Stuffed with
Cheese, Wrapped in Bacon. (See recipe below.)

Anger: Shrimp and Mussels Fra Diavolo.

Lust: The medieval symbol of sexuality”€”Figs, Coated with Belgian chocolate.

Greed: Something irresistible: Peanut Butter Cookies.

Sloth: Something good but ridiculously easy: Haagen-Daz ice cream”€”self-service, straight out of the container.

Drink: Flaming Purgatory Punch.

Recipe by Denise Matychowiak

Gluttony: Stuffed Dates Serves 8.
1 pound good quality dates
8 ounces Gorgonzola or other bleu cheese
1/2 pound bacon

Fry bacon to chewy stage. Drain on paper towels and set aside.
Remove pits from dates. Stuff the cavity of each with cheese. Wrap each date with 1/2 slice bacon. Pass under broiler momentarily and serve.
IMPORTANT NOTE: To illustrate theme of Gluttony, do not make enough of these treats to satisfy all your guests”€”then watch them fight over scraps.


1. Literally”€”it’s said that the Aztecs would rip out and eat some 10,000 human hearts a month from defeated enemies and helpless neighboring tribes, offering blood to the Sun God to keep him getting up in the morning. Apparently, coffee didn’t suffice.
2. Okay, you need help. Reach out, and ask for it. This marriage can still be saved.
3. It’s like a bong, only for Arabs.


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