“Halloween” may be the title of a series of gruesome slash-and-kill films; it may be associated with pumpkins with a carved face, or wearing costumes, or children knocking on doors yelling “Trick or treat!”
What people forget is that Oct. 31 used to be a day of fasting before the Church celebration of two feasts: All Saints Day on Nov. 1 and All Souls Day on Nov. 2. Before it was shortened to Halloween, the celebration used to be known as All Hallows Eve. How did Filipinos come to visit the graves of their departed kin and friends, undas, on Nov. 1 rather than correctly on Nov. 2? While I believe that all the dead are or have souls, I’m not so sure that all were saints in life or death.
To bring back the true sense of Halloween, Holy Angel University (HAU) in Angeles, Pampanga, has organized its grade school kids into an alternative celebration. Instead of donning costumes of ghosts, vampires and other scary characters from film and TV, the kids dress up like Catholic saints. And like the famous song, they do come marching into the HAU church, to the delight of parents and friends and the bewilderment of some, as expressed in comments on Facebook.
One of the organizers said dressing up in horror costume for fun detracted from the spirit of the season and, worse, trivialized evil, to which someone replied: “Oh, lighten up!” Maybe the justification should have come from a book, “Halloween, Hallowed Be Thy Name,” by Rev. Dr. Eddie J. Smith, which says that going out in horror costume was a means to stand up to and make fun of Satan, “whose kingdom has been plundered by our Saviour.”
From the photos posted on Facebook, the HAU celebration had the kids dressed like the statues in church that signified how some holy men and women were elevated to sainthood because of martyrdom for their faith. I am reminded of when I wrote a small column for Inquirer Lifestyle called “Santo” on the many obscure saints in Catholic lore.
I was fascinated when I read of one St. Artemas, a teenaged boy, who flaunted his faith in a pagan classroom. He got more than bullying and being called names: His classmates stabbed him to death with their styli (a stylus is an iron or iron-tipped pen used to carve into wood or wax writing tablets)! Further research led to St. Cassian, schoolmaster of Imola, who refused an order of the Emperor to worship Roman gods.
He was turned over to his students, who had nursed grudges about his teaching and disciplinary methods, and who took their revenge by stabbing him to death, also with their styli. Cassian is the patron saint of Mexico and parish clerks. His feast actually falls on my birthday, Aug. 13, and should remind me to be kinder to my students lest they club me to death with their laptops.
More popular is San Sebastian, usually depicted in art as a beautiful young man, almost naked in a homoerotic pose, punctured by numerous arrows. In one source the saint is described as “surrounded by arrows as a porcupine is with quills.”
Gilda Cordero-Fernando suggests in a recent column that some items in “Lives of the Saints” can be as terrifying and gruesome as the costumes of monsters and demons. The apostle Peter was crucified on an inverted cross, often seen as a symbol of evil. San Bartolome, who in Malabon is depicted holding a bolo similar to that of Andres Bonifacio, was skinned alive like a rabbit being prepared for roasting. Bartholomew in the Sistine Chapel is shown holding a knife in one hand and his crumpled skin in the other. It is said that if you pay attention to the withered flesh, it forms the face of a man, the self-portrait of Michelangelo.
My favorite image of a saint in San Agustin Church is that of San Pedro Martir, in the distinctive Dominican habit with a bolo on his head. He was stabbed and hacked to death. In English churches my favorite is St. Cuthbert, regally dressed as a bishop, with his head in his hands. St. Stephen the Deacon or San Esteban is another favorite: He is also depicted as a beautiful youth in diaconal attire, with rocks to remind us that he was stoned to death. (If you don’t know the story, you may mistake the rocks for pan de sal.)
St. Agatha, the patron saint of bakers and bell-makers, holds her breasts on a platter because that was one of the tortures she endured before she expired. St. Appolonia is shown with pliers and a tooth, depicting how she was tortured and explaining why she is the patron saint of dentists.
St. Valentine, whose feast falls on Feb. 14, was a priest who made the mistake of trying to convert the Emperor Claudius. He was beaten with clubs, stoned, and beheaded. While in prison awaiting his execution, he married young couples and became the patron saint of lovers. St. Afra of Augsburg and St. Joan of Arc join many martyrs who were burned to death. St. Lawrence (Lorenzo in Spanish) was a deacon who followed Pope Sixtus to his execution.
He was told that he would follow in three days, so he sold everything he owned, including some precious vessels, and gave the money to the poor. This caught the attention of the greedy Prefect of Rome, who inquired where the Christians hid their treasure. Lawrence gathered all the poor people in the city and presented them to the Prefect, declaring: “This is the treasure of the Church.” Naturally, the Prefect was not amused and ordered that he be roasted on a grill until dead. The gridiron is the symbol of his martyrdom and sometimes he is depicted like a lechon in a roasting pit. His feast is on Aug. 10.
St. Lucy is best remembered for the image of Sta. Lucia in Ilocos, whose dress is filled with silver eyes left by people who had asked for a cure. The story of her eyes being gouged out by her tormentors does not appear earlier than the 15th century because she was sentenced to be defiled in a brothel but the guards could not move her even with the help of oxen. So they put wood around her and set her on fire, but she miraculously survived so they dispatched her by beheading.
The lives of the saints can supply more Halloween blood and gore than the movies.
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