I was recently involved with a FACEBOOK discussion on the topic of Halloween. A college student was challenged by his roommate that the celebration was “evil.” His friend was a “born again” Christian. He asked friends to shed light on the question.
A Catholic Reflection on Halloween
Halloween in a pluralistic society means various things to different people. Indeed, given the contemporary fascination with vampires, werewolves, witches, ghosts and zombies, it might seem that Halloween is now a year-long celebration. But the question at hand is a narrow one, does Halloween place superstition above authentic faith? The dialogue is not only between Christians but must confront the values and meanings imposed by a liberal secular humanism and the emergence of modern paganism.
Questions of sectarian faith aside, we have also connected Halloween to the fall harvests, thus the symbols of pumpkins, apple bobbing, corn mazes, hay rides, scarecrows, owls, etc. Such a feast provides a fun dress up for children and the giving of candy, which reinforces the joy of childhood and the solidarity of the community in caring for them.
The Tension over Halloween
Certain reformed Protestants often object to Halloween because of its apparent preoccupation with the dead and their souls. Remember, such believers reject purgatory and prayers for the dead. Other groups deny even the soul and hell, like Seventh-day Adventists. Obviously, as Catholics, we cannot play along with arguments focused against our holy faith. While we might regard ghosts as souls in purgatory, in their estimation the whole business is either a fantasy or a devilish deception. Since Christ has destroyed death, any preoccupation with it is negatively judged as “popery.” But Catholicism stresses both a personal and a corporate faith. The saints live in a communion with Christ and one another. The souls in purgatory are still part of the Church. We pray for the poor souls just as we ask the heavenly saints to pray for and with us. The bond of our unity is Christ, himself.
The so-called pagan foundation of Halloween (as in Samhain) is a modern exaggeration. The roots are actually Christian, or Catholic. The name Halloween is a derivation of All Hallows’ Evening or Eve. Neo-pagan religion, perverse occultists, and New Age believers would attempt to make it something else. Catholic immigrants from countries like Mexico are also introducing the similar “Dia de los Muerto.”
Some have the peculiar notion that All Hallows’ Eve is a night where spirits or ghosts enact violence. This is nonsense! It is the made-up stuff of the occult and/or horror movies. It probably has roots in the pranks played by juveniles while dressed up and moving from house to house.
Puritans and/or Calvinists associated prayers for the dead with witchcraft and necromancy. Their religious descendants are still among us. Today when we think of Puritans, the legacy of Plymouth Rock is tarnished by the legendary Salem Witch Trials. Religious hysteria brought about the condemnation and execution of innocent women. Each year witches, real and imaginary, pilgrimage to Salem, Massachusetts. Tourism soars as revelers come to celebrate the holiday. This has even precipitated seasonal tension between Wicca or naturalistic pagans and those who perpetuate the caricature of witches on brooms. I recall that the Salem Knights of Columbus hall had to cancel contracts when they realized that renters were using their facility for genuine witchcraft, not the make-believe variety. It is precisely because of such fears that a number of Christian communities have now utterly rejected Halloween. Of course, certain Christian cults reject any holiday or special day that is not clearly scripturally based. Others object just to be different from Catholics or to illustrate their disdain for Rome’s authority. That means that a number of these faith communities do not celebrate Christmas, Easter or the Sunday Observance.
The fundamentalist Christian critic insists that Halloween is a capitulation of the Christian commission. This seems to be a bit of a stretch, at least in terms of boys dressed as cowboys and girls as princesses. My only regret is that I would have children yearn for Holy Communion as much as they race to fill their Halloween bags with candy.
While some Protestants politely agree to disagree with Catholicism and about the celebration of Halloween; other Christian groups condemn the festive day as devilish and pass out anti-Catholic “Chick Tracts” to the trick-or-treaters. Still other Christians, like most Catholics, see nothing inherently wrong with children dressing up and collecting candy. Certain Catholics and Protestants will pass out alternative treats, like crosses, prayer books, religious stickers, etc. Concerned about the direction that Halloween is taking, a number of Catholic families and churches urge the children to dress up as saints. I recall one little boy who was quite upset when Sister at school told him that he could not dress as a monster. When Halloween came she pulled him aside, angry with his costume. She lamented, “I thought I told you that you had to be a saint?” He answered, “I am a saint, Sister— I’m John the Baptist… after the beheading!”
The weekend of our Halloween Party at Holy Family Parish, a lady rebuked me after Mass for celebrating the “devil’s holiday.” If such were true then Christians could have no part of it. But the case cannot currently be made. Baptist and Catholic churches both have Halloween parties and trunk-or-treat activities in their parking lots. As Christians our strength is in the Lord. The children of light are in conflict with the darkness. But the game is fixed. There may be casualties who reject the Lord but the victory over sin and death is already accomplished. We need no longer be the devil’s property. We have been redeemed or purchased at a great price. Jesus dies that we might live. Prayer and the life of charity are the essential ways that we confront darkness. God made the pumpkins, the spiders, the bats, the owls and us. He made candy sweet and gave innocence to children. God gave us the day and the night. Halloween belongs to God.
The negative critic feels that Halloween gives the devil a foothold in the lives and hearts of Christians. However, as in our recent parish Halloween party, I saw selfless volunteers running games, cooking, and distributing goodies to children out of a Christian love for youth and their families. The devil will have nothing to do with real love.
A Christian Understanding of the Symbols of Halloween
Some authorities trace the carved pumpkin to Irish folklore about a drunk who trapped the devil in a tree and carved a cross upon it. Having made a deal with the devil never to be tempted again by drink, Jack was denied entry into heaven. He was given a cinder of fire in a turnip for light. Supposedly the turnip became a pumpkin in America. The jack-o’-lantern became a visible against compromise with the devil. It also serves the same function as the gargoyles on the Gothic cathedrals of Europe. They became a type of sacramental to invoke divine protection.
Scary costumes, like the carved pumpkins, fulfill a similar purpose. These were cultural or folkloric ways in which simple people sought to ward off evil. While it may be a bit silly, the notion that people had was that evil or dark spirits would be encouraged to pass over their homes and leave their communities undisturbed. The assumption was that the demons might be fooled by the caricatures of themselves (kids in costume) into supposing that the area was already infested or occupied. There is no real doctrinal weight to such a practice… just a desire to be holy and not molested by evil. Today most people just dress up for fun.
The practice of trick-or-treating probably finds its roots in All Souls Day. There used to be processions or parades on November 2nd. Christians would beseech “soul cakes” (dried raisin/square bread) in return for saying prayers for dead family members. They were mostly collected by children and the poor. Each cake represented a soul being released from purgatory. Dressing up and singing was often parting of “souling” from house to house.
Some Christians are unhappy with the symbolism of Halloween. I recall one person angrily upset about skulls or skeletons. However, this prejudice fails to appreciate that the skull is embraced by Catholicism as both an immediate sign of death and of our dependence upon God. It is used by the Knights of Columbus, in depictions of the crucifixion and even decorates certain European churches. We do not worship death but are ever mindful of the price paid for our redemption. Further, our time in this world is short. The theme of death or mortality is one to which we return on Ash Wednesday. “Remember, O man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.”
It is unfortunate that venerable Christian symbols should be confused by the ignorant and bigoted as satanic. I was in one parish where a shrine to St. Peter was vandalized, not by crazy kids or occultists, but by Christian fundamentalists. They ripped the inverted cross from the ground and argued that it was a sign of Satan and of the antichrist. You still hear such foolishness about the upside-down cross on the back of the papal chair. But the bigots misinterpret an ancient symbol of martyrdom. St. Peter did not feel worthy to die like his Lord so he asked his executioners to crucify him with his feet in the air and his head toward the ground. Critics make a mockery of an inspiring witness to Christ.
Catholics also venerate the relics of the holy dead, wear medals and scapulars, carry and say rosaries and use holy water. These are not talismans or the accidentals for magic. Rather, they are visible signs of our faith in the incarnate God, the God made visible in Jesus Christ.
Keep Christ in Halloween
We read in Philippians 4:8-9: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you.” Christians are committed to the pure and the good.
This might make us reflective of the spiritual elements attached to the secular commemoration of Halloween. We cannot buy the entire package. However, it may yet be reclaimed for Christ. The Christian effort is to Christianize the world, not to run away or hide in a spiritual ghetto. Certainly, there is innocence about children dressing up and finding delight in sweets. My growing reservation is about where adults are taking the festivity. Catholics and significant numbers of other Christians offer alternatives to trick-or-treat and spend All Hallows’ Eve at church worshipping God and recalling the witness of the saints in Christ. I agree with the criticism that there are sinister undercurrents that are seeking to hijack the expanding season of Halloween. As a child I dressed as a clown, a cowboy, an astronaut and as a superhero. It troubles me to see children attired today as characters from “R” rated horror movies. Why do they even know anything about these murderous and blasphemous characters? I am repulsed “personally” by the sleazy costumes that cast derision upon priests and nuns. Adult costumes, especially for females, increasingly celebrate vulgarity and eroticism. If Christians cannot redirect the fun away from these elements then it is true (I would agree) we might have to opt out entirely. It may be that Halloween is escalating in the direction of the occult and vulgarity. Maybe we as good Catholics and Knights need to campaign for Halloween as we would for Christmas? We also need to keep Christ in Halloween. All Saints’ assures us that we can have a share in Christ’s life and in the kingdom. All Souls’ reminds us that while we are sinners, God is infinitely merciful. What he has started in us, he will finish.
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