Halloween: What a great holiday! It beats the heck out of Arbor Day six ways to Sunday. Around this time every year, I’m asked by Christian parents about the appropriateness of their children dressing up as Spiderman or cowboys or fairy princesses.
Every year I give them the same response: Halloween’s supposed occult connections are superficial and misleading. Halloween is steeped in Catholic theology and piety, and besides, it’s just so much damn fun. We couldn’t have arranged a more perfect synthesis of devotion and festivity had we tried. When you get to the core of what the holiday is, you find an overwhelmingly Catholic Christian holiday. It should be recognized and celebrated as such—warts, spider webs, and all.
Symbolically and historically, Halloween is associated with the supernatural, death, and spooky things, but its evolution from its ancient origins to its current permutation is interesting to note.
It’s been said that Halloween was originally a Celtic holiday called Samhain. It is true the ancient Celts celebrated a minor holiday on October 31 dedicated to the harvest, but they also celebrated a festival on the last day of almost every month of the year. Further, Samhain was celebrated only among Irish pagans. It would be odd if the Catholic Church, in an attempt to Christianize the holiday, skipped over all of the other numerous pagan tribes and their harvest holidays to annoy the Irish pagans.
In the Christian calendar November 1 is All Saints Day, or “All Hallows’ Day.” The word “Halloween” is simply the abbreviated form of “All Hallows’ Eve,” the vigil celebration in anticipation of the feast day.
In the early fourth century, All Saints Day was a way to commemorate the martyrs, but later all of the saints were included in the festival. All Souls Day is our day to remember those who have fallen asleep in Christ who weren't officially recognized as saints.
St. Augustine reminds us, “If we had no care for the dead, we would not be in the habit of praying for them.” We are all weak creatures, and none of us are holy enough to stand before the throne of God. Thus we need the prayers of others. All Saints Day and All Souls Day are meant to remind us of the need to be humble before God and each other.
By the time All Saints Day was moved to November 1 (731) and All Souls Day was added to the calendar (998), Europe had already long been Christianized. Halloween was not a matter of appeasement, an evangelization scheme, or strong-arming against Celtic pagans, despite the protests of modern-day neo-pagans and “witches.”
The practice of dressing in costumes for All Souls Day originated in France during the 14th and 15th centuries. During the Black Death epidemics, artists would depict the Danse Macabre, “Dance of Death,” on cemetery walls and coffins. The images would depict the devil or the personification of Death leading the recently deceased into a tomb. A custom arose in France of reenacting Danse Macabre on All Souls Day. It was believed that the demons out that night would be fooled by the masked party-goers and move on in search for a place devoid of their co-diabolics.
Guy Fawkes Day, November 5, commemorates the unsuccessful Catholic uprising intended to blow up the British parliament and overthrow King James I’s government in 1605. Small children would don masks and go about begging “a penny for the Guy,” the hapless keeper of the gunpowder intended for the revolution. Adult revelers would demand beer and cakes. Tricks and treats, indeed! The custom of dressing in masquerade and asking for small presents migrated easily to All Hallows’ Eve.
As to Halloween’s supposed pre-Christian origins, Thursday and Friday are named after the Norse gods Thor and Frigga, and we got the idea for Christmas trees from religions that predate Christianity. But you would be hard-pressed to find a Christian willing to give up his tree or rename the days of the week. We shouldn’t be so hard on Halloween, either.
How much more Catholic a holiday can anyone hope for? Let’s resolve to take back the holiday and celebrate it as it was originally intended: a spiritual preparation for the two more important holidays following it: All Souls Day and All Saints Day. For years, my parish school has had the delightful custom of asking students to dress as their favorite saints for their Halloween party.
Now that we’re on the same page about Halloween historically speaking, the question still remains: Should we be dressing as ghouls and witches? I’ve never been a big fan of gore, but a pair of plastic vampire teeth and some fake blood is hardly going to traumatize anyone’s child.
Recently some parishes have decided to host so-called “harvest parties.” These are “Halloween-lite” parties, sans mentions of death and general creepiness. But by avoiding discussion of death, an important part of our theology as Christians, we miss important celebratory opportunities.
Let’s not run scared with our dog costume’s tail between our legs. God doesn't mind if we have a laugh or two or even a good scare every now and again. If not, God wouldn’t have invented roller coasters. Being scared is actually a lot of fun. It’s as innocuous as practical jokes on April Fool’s Day and barbecues on the Fourth of July.
Mexican Catholics haven’t had a problem reconciling frightening images with profound faith during their celebrations of the Day of the Dead (El Día de los Muertos). The Day of the Dead is their way of celebrating All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Mexican Catholics dress in costumes and decorate their homes with skulls, skeletons, tombstones, coffins, and candles. They even go so far as to picnic in cemeteries, and they seem to be handling it well. There's no reason the rest of the Catholic world can’t.
Despite the protestation of our “pagan” brothers and sisters, witches don’t actually exist. That is, I’ve yet to meet anyone who can actually alter the weather, curdle milk simply by looking at it, or make wells run dry. I've met some folks who claim to do these things and more, but they are only fooling themselves.
That being the case, our kids can dress as witches as easily as any two of them can be the front and back ends of a unicorn; they don’t exist, either. I say, masquerade and masquerade boldly! Let the macabre flow! If dressing as a saint is your thing, then so be it, but there’s no problem going as your favorite scary alien monster.
Halloween is a great time to get your scare on. If not now, when? Let’s indulge in the sticky, the creepy, and in things that go bump in the night on Halloween. This is our night to bump back. You can dress as a devil as long as you don't succumb to the diabolical. If you dress as a demon, you are no more worshiping a demon than you are worshiping an angel if you dressed as your favorite cherub.
I will admit that some costumes are scandalous and show poor taste. Just because it’s a fun holiday doesn't mean we should toss aside common sense, decency, and our ethics. Our society already oversexualizes children, and adults for that matter.
The more Christians become scared of this otherwise benign and harmless holiday, the more we empower those who wish to desacramentalize and even commercialize Christianity. Frankly, I believe there’s more damage caused by the commercialization of Halloween than there is in the supposed paganization of the holiday. I’d trust Christians with Halloween before I'd trust Walmart with it.
To Christians who refuse to join in on the festivities: A part of our prayer is rejoicing in God and throwing ourselves into the mysteries of our faith, which include life and death. That sounds like it has “Halloween” written all over it.
This year, I’m planning on attending New York City’s huge Halloween celebration as St. Michael the Archangel. With any luck, my wings won’t get caught in the subway doors.
And the survey says…
Since our baptism tells us that we no longer need to fear death, I think it’s fine for Catholics to laugh at death and symbols of evil on Halloween.
63% – Agree
19% – Disagree
18% – Other
Representative of “other”:
I don’t think we should fear death, but I don’t think we should laugh at it either. We should respect it as the passage to eternal life.
What disturbs me the most about the current celebration of Halloween is:
75% – Kids dressing as pimps, French maids, and other characters with strong sexual overtones.
44% – Adults going overboard on what essentially is a kids’ day.
43% – Commercialization.
33% – Too much blood and gore.
20% – Witch, wizard, or devil costumes that tend toward the occult.
20% – Too much candy.
16% – Trick-or-treating after dark.
5% – Nothing whatsoever.
13% – Other
Insisting that children dress up as saints on Halloween is being overly pious about a fun holiday.
79% – Agree
15% – Disagree
6% – Other
The church should do a better job of connecting Halloween to All Saints and All Souls Day.
80% – Agree
13% – Disagree
7% – Other
Parish “harvest parties” are a lame substitution for Halloween celebrations.
56% – Agree
29% – Disagree
15% – Other
Children still trick-or-treat door-to-door in my neighborhood.
81% – Agree
11% – Disagree
8% – Other
I think it’s fun to be scared every once in a while.
70% – Agree
22% – Disagree
8% – Other
My favorite Halloween tradition is . . .
Playing my homemade Halloween audio tape out of our windows at home and turning all the lights off except pumpkin candles—spooks the trick-or-treaters!
Eating the candy I deem to be “too much” for my children and grandchildren to consume!
Trick-or-treating when it’s kind of dark and windy with the leaves blowing and the trees bare. Also carving pumpkins!
Saving my change throughout the year in order to let the kids grab a handful of coins. This doesn’t cost me any more than purchasing too much candy.
M. C. Hummel
St. Louis, Mo.
Hospitality—opening my door to strangers and giving them candy, which is, symbolically at least, food!
Trading loot around the dining room table or under a street light. Passing a house in March and hearing kids remind each other, “That’s the place where they give whole candy bars.”
Greeting the children at the door when they come for trick-or-treating and pretending that I don’t recognize them.
J. Claire Powers
Celebrating All Hallows’ Eve at our parish. Our youth dress up as saints and tell their saint’s story. Bobbing for apples, a best costume contest, and many other fun games are manned by the teens.
Dressing up, scaring the girls (hee, hee).
The best Halloween costume I ever had was . . .
A bumble bee made by my great-grandmother when I was 5. I felt very special that she took the time to make me happy.
When we were children we made up our own costumes from clothes we had. We totally disguised ourselves, and our neighbors would guess our identity. That was as much fun as receiving a treat.
A tie between a clown and a witch. Dressing up like the witch in The Wizard of Oz helped me overcome my fear of her.
In the third grade, we had to come to school dressed as our patron saint. I was glamorous in a pretty gown and shiny crown as St. Margaret of Scotland. Halloween night, I was simply a glamorous queen. I have wonderful memories of my mother’s clever compromise.
Last year I was a Catholic priest. My costume was an actual cassock and was meant to respect those I admire. It was in no way disrespectful.
Stephen M. Stoller
Dressing up with my friends as a box of crayons. We all had so much fun together!
The year I was eight months pregnant, I wore an orange blouse with a pumpkin face made of felt on my belly.
A devil costume that my aunt made for me, complete with a cape and a four-foot long tail that I could twirl. I don’t recall doing any Satan worship because of it, but it won several prizes in local contests.
Conneaut Lake, Pa.
Can’t remember! Probably a fairy princess. I was more interested in the candy.
One way to remember the religious dimension of Halloween would be . . .
To light candles for your deceased loved ones. It would also tie in nicely with mainstream Halloween decor. I also like the idea of dressing up as saints at parochial schools.
Nicole Welle Nere
West Fargo, N.D.
To not condemn it or make it religious. Accept for what it is—a day for children and fun.
Port Byron N.Y.
To attend All Souls and All Saints Day Masses.
To visit a cemetery to pray for the dead.
Thomas B. Bayne
To have parties at the parish hall.
Deacon Russell M. Shoemaker
We gather the kids and tell stories about and pray for our own communion of saints after trick-or-treating. We leave a favorite candy bar on the mantle with the pictures of those who have died.
As a high school religion teacher, we use the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead to emphasize that Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day deal with our belief that death is not the end and that the dead are still a part of our lives and church.
For priests to incorporate it into the previous weekend’s homilies, and for parents to talk about it at mealtime.
Sister M. Kenan McGowan, R.S.M.
What I’d most like to change about Halloween is . . .
All the fake piety about devil worship. Ironic, isn’t it, that children seem to know what is real and what is fantasy but adults seldom do?
I live in a college town, and the drinking and the parties are out of control.
Too many teenagers just out for candy.
To live in a safer world so children could trick-or-treat without fear of kidnappings and poison candy.
Jeanette Mader Hall
That parents wouldn’t turn their kids into pimps and whores to trick-or-treat.
The overwhelming commercialization. I’d also love to see a return to homemade and improvised costumes. Yes, kiddies, you can cut holes in a sheet or dress up in clothes from the attic!
Mary Ellen Kelly
New York, N.Y.
The emphasis on gluttony in a nation where childhood obesity is on the rise.
The enjoyment of feeling afraid. I’d rather our culture learn to laugh at what scares us on this holiday as a discipline to remind us that God is with us. His son commanded us: “Do not be afraid!”
Mirarma Beach, Fla.
Harvest parties are mega-lame and a little weird. Celebrating the harvest has a lot more paganism in it than All Souls.
Kids, especially my 9-year-old son, love gross and scary things. And many of our saints have some pretty scary stories. Is being a disemboweled, beheaded, or burned-at-the-stake saint really better than some fangs?
We seem to be placing too much emphasis on Halloween. It’s not that important.
This is like the Harry Potter issue. No wizard or holiday can rob my family or me of my faith. What’s fun is fun, and when we try to read too much into it, religious people only reveal themselves as pompous and pious.
This article appeared in the October 2009 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 74, No. 10, pages 32-36).
Results are based on survey responses from 255 U.S. Catholic readers and website visitors.