By Vir Christi
Halloween annually is a subject of great controversy among non-Christians and Christians alike. Non-Christians often argue—wrongly—that the Church appropriated pagan holidays and painted over them with their celebrations. Many Protestants argue that Catholics place far too much emphasis on the deceased. So what should we believe? How should we approach these days?
The True Origins of Halloween
As with many things in American culture, Halloween is not derived from one single culture but is an amalgamation of three different cultures. The tradition of dressing up in costumes comes from French Catholics. The “dance of the macabre” was a theme in French culture, both acknowledging the reality of death as well as making light of it. Dressing up in outlandish costumes fit the theme.
The fascination with frightening things, like ghouls, goblins, and other terrors of the night, comes from Irish Catholics. Irish peasants recognized that the Church celebrated the souls in Heaven and prayed for the souls in Purgatory. But what about the souls that had been damned? The Irish believed that if those souls were not acknowledged, they would cause mischief and harm on the eve of the special day reserved to the saints in Heaven. This idea was never approved by the Church leadership, but it worked its way into the fabric of Irish culture, and is part of the reason why modern Halloween centers on the spooky supernaturals.
Finally, the concept of “trick-or-treating” came from the English Catholics, although they likely would have preferred it not be so. The English celebrate a holiday called Guy Fawkes Day, which was named after a Catholic individual who tried to assassinate King James I of England and the whole of Parliament. The plot failed, and English Protestants celebrated it as a victory. Protestants marked the anniversary by going to the homes of known Catholics and demanding cake and other goodies, frequently in an inebriated state. When English Catholics began immigrating to the United States, the memory of Guy Fawkes faded, but the “trick-or-treat” tradition remained.
Can Catholics Celebrate Halloween?
The short answer? Yes. The accusation that Halloween is a pagan holiday is an anti-Catholic slander that began shortly after the Protestant Reformation. Because it is on the eve of the two days of the year when the Church celebrates her full unity in the Church Triumphant (saints in Heaven), Church Suffering (souls in Purgatory), and Church Militant (souls on Earth), All Hallows Eve is holy like any solemnity’s vigil.
The problem is that Halloween has been heavily commercialized. Like with Christmas and Easter, the secular world recognizes the opportunity to make a profit and capitalizes on people’s imaginations. All too readily, Catholics give in to the narratives around the origins of Halloween, and subsequently fail to approach the day with due reverence. So how do we commemorate the day properly?
First, be prudent when picking Halloween costumes—or allowing those in your care to select them. There’s no harm in dressing up as Superman, one of the folks from Scooby Doo, etc. But avoid picking costumes that place an overly heavy emphasis on the powers of the demonic (Satan or other demonic entities, deceased serial killers, and so on). Pick costumes that either glorify God by pointing to a saint who inspired you, or that help people to be lighthearted in the middle of a world that seeks to fill us with sorrow and despair.
In addition to the costumes, that prudence should extend to the decor. Halloween decorations are good fun, but don’t go overboard. Like with costumes, stay away from the demonic or anything that’s purely evil. There’s nothing wrong with silly spookiness, like a few ghosts and goblins, but try to mix it up and think about including saints or imagery that reminds us of the mortality of human life.
Second, be vocal about why Halloween exists in the first place. Don’t just let society try to separate it from its Catholic origins. Use it as an opportunity to remind family and friends that our lives come to an end at some point, and it’s good to be prepared for that moment with frequent Confession, an active life of prayer, and constant striving to live a virtuous life rooted in Christ. Don’t be discouraged by the eye-rolling that may follow: that annoyance with religious observance is just a reflection of society, and that will be overcome with gentle persistence.
Last, spend some time meditating on the glory of Heaven and the wonders of eternity with God. Society will actively spend the days leading up to Halloween bragging about promoting fear and spookiness. If left unattended, being saturated with such information can inadvertently send us sinking down the slope to despair. This fear and spookiness can also lead to an unhealthy fascination with the bad things in this world. It starts with small things, but all of those things add up.
Keep All Hallows’ Day Holy
There is a lot of quality material out there regarding the celebration of All Saints’ Day, to the point where this author feels much of what could be written here would be repetitive. Just remember that this day is a spiritual opportunity for you not only to remember that we have a community of people praying for us in Heaven, but to see how those prayers have been at work in your life personally. Even without invoking them by name, the saints take an interest in us and actively pray for us. Some saints follow us more closely than others, depending on our respective stations in life. For example, Saint Michael keeps a special watch on police officers.
Take a little time on All Saints’ Day and think back on everything that happened to you this year. Meditate on both the joys and sorrows, the triumphs and setbacks. If you ponder them for long enough, you’ll likely start to see the beginnings of a theme God was putting in your life throughout that year. Whatever the theme, there’s a patron saint whose intercession covers it because they faced similar challenges or overcame obstacles like yours. Once you identify the theme, do some research to determine whose patronage that falls under, and then make a point of invoking the intercession of that particular saint for the next year.
As we prepare to enter into Halloween and All Saints’ Day, remember the Catholic origins of the holiday, but don’t allow yourself to be deprived of fun! Solemnities are meant to be occasions of great rejoicing; giving the day its proper due doesn’t mean that you aren’t allowed to have fun of any kind. Instead, prayerfully consider how you could sanctify that time of enjoyment, and watch the blessings that God will pour out on your life in the ensuing year!
Vir’s heart has been on fire for the Church from day one, and he dreams of the day when Constantinople will be a city again. He has a competitive drive satiated by sports and board games, but is also just as happy to sit down and read a good book for hours on end.