Every year on Halloween I love to post this short witty video about the Christian origins of Halloween. In a deliberately whimsical Shakespearian argot, an English gent details how “All Hallows Eve,” has its roots in “old Mother Church,” and was a night to play out the spiritual battle between the forces of good and evil, light and the dark, and life and death. He then explains how the resurrection of Christ irrevocably changed everything that came before, and how we now wait in anticipation of what comes after. In three short minutes he illuminates the historical and spiritual darkness surrounding modern misconceptions about Halloween. He concludes with this sage advice, “So ridicule rogues if you must play a role, but beware getting lost in that bottomless hole. The triumph is not with the forces of night, it dawned with the One who said, “I am the Light.”
Then like clockwork, within minutes of posting it and in spite of the video’s uplifting message, I will be inundated with comments about how no amount of explanations can make Halloween acceptable for Christians. Christian fundamentalists will rant about how supporting such a demonic holiday proves yet again why Catholics are not Christians, while fellow Catholics will warn about the dangers of the occult presence and trappings on that night.
The problem I have with both of these objections, is that no matter who is complaining, the end result is the same. Whether one recognizes October 31st as Halloween or the vigil of All Hallows Eve, I am told that we should have nothing to do with it because it has been too sullied (let alone commercialized) by pagans, Wiccans and lovers of the macabre. That on this night, the followers of the “powers and principalities” and the “spiritual hosts of wickedness” in the world are prowling our neighborhoods or meeting in black candle-lit basements, casting curses and spells on those gluttonous souls out trick or treating.
While I fully understand some of these concerns, as well as the reality and danger of the occult, I think a more sober, realistic, and well, Catholic approach is warranted.
One Big Unhistorical Mess
I have written about the origins of Halloween elsewhere but suffice it to say that while Halloween has indeed been shaped by traditions and cultures from the Old World, they have been thoroughly Americanized over the last few centuries. Furthermore, the majority of the mischaracterizations and criticisms of Halloween are also something of an American phenomena, and are the product of the periodic anti-Catholic sentiments that have risen up in America since its inception.
While it was the Puritans who first banned public observances of Catholic holidays (such as Christmas or All Hallows Eve), in more recent times the lion’s share of denouncing Halloween has come out of fundamentalists Christian sects. They are the ones who have, for well over a 100 years now, made historical, cultural and spiritual assertions about Halloween’s alleged connections to Old World pagan religions and the occult. The quintessential example of these claims are found in the writings of Jack Chick whose booklets most of us have seen or read, or even received along with our candy when trick-or-treating as kids. These claims about the “truth” about Halloween, from the mundane to the outlandish, have been uncritically parroted by other Christians (and even some Catholics) over the years.
And yet, given the uniformity and pervasiveness of these claims, one would assume that there must be an abundance of historical research to support them. Unfortunately, the answer is no. Check any pamphlet, book, or video and you will see an appalling paucity of sources or citations to the claims and quotes contained therein. True, you may find references to other books or sources, but this is nothing more than a bibliographical slight of hand. For more often than not, these authors will cite each other or the same works over and over again, most of which are still lacking in any clear connection to original or primary sources.
And herein lies the problem will the majority of the information used by Christians to reject Halloween- the utter lack of primary sources or historical data to support their claims. Granted the pagans whose religious practices are said to have influenced Halloween were non-literate societies, and thus left no written records of themselves. Those records we do have of them, such as of the Druids of the British Isles or the festival of Samhain (which Halloween is accused of being a replacement for) come from other pagans. In particular the Romans, such as Julius Caesar, who wrote about his encounters with the locals in his Gallic Wars.
The only other time the pagan peoples of the British Isles and their practices are mentioned again, is from Christians in either an Irish work called the Uraichech Beccor in the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiatical History of the English People. By that time though, the Druids were long gone and the locals had been Christian for hundreds of years. This is why any claim made about the “pagan origins” of Halloween should be viewed with great skepticism, and responded with a simple, “You got a source for that?”
The Real and Present Danger from the Occult
With all that in mind, we should not dismiss all criticisms of Halloween or ignore the fact that Jack Chick or other Christian fundamentalists did not have a legitimate bone to pick about the waning of Christianity and the waxing of the occult in American society.
Certainly the social upheavals of the 1960’s played a huge role in breaking down our traditional Christian culture, which lead to the rise of satanic imagery and lyrics in rock music (played forwards or "backwards") that had “sympathy” for the Devil, as well as the formation of the Church of Satan by Anton LeVay in 1966, which openly performed black masses. Moreover, the dropping of the Hays Code in movies, lead to the sensationalizing of the demonic in such films as Rosemary’s Baby (1968) or The Exorcist (1973), as well as films that glorified death and gore, beginning with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). That film would spawn an entire genre of horror films culminating in the iconic slasher flicks of the 1980’s such as the Friday the 13th, Halloween, and A Nightmare of Elm Street franchises that have continued to this day.
All of these films were a malevolent menagerie of sin and the demonic that mocked and invert St. Paul’s taunt of “death where is thy sting?” in light of the resurrection, which was in part one of the original reasons for dressing up on All Hallows Eve. Instead, the last half century has seen the rise of a popular culture that is now enamored with death and lusts after it with a nihilistic appetite for destruction.
One could make a better case that it has been all of this dark cultural baggage in the last half century, that is at the root of the numerous “satanic panics” and the spiritual suspicions that Christians have about Halloween, rather than any alleged pagan influences from antiquity. Again, this is not to say we should ignore legitimate concerns about the influences of the occult and the world have on how we observe holidays. But we cannot let ourselves get so twisted out of shape that we make our faith seem like “foolishness” and a “stumbling block” to others.
Furthermore, by accepting these false histories and narratives, aside from giving credence to our detractors’ misconceptions, it is hard to see how it doesn’t present an image to an unbelieving world that we are spiritual pushovers, or worse, cowards. It is as though we are saying that, even though there is absolutely no historical proof that modern-day Wiccans or pagans have any legitimate claim on Halloween, we are nonetheless going to cede this evening over to them. As though, on this night and this night only, we will accept that the “darkness” has overcome the light “that shines in darkness.”
We really should know and do better, not just in spite of but because the forces of evil are also running amok on Halloween night. Christ is the light of the world and our faith is not meant to be hidden away under a basket of timidity. So if indeed sin, death, and cursings are out and about in our neighborhoods, then it is up to us to take up our own space and push back the darkness with the light, life, and love of our Lord.
Making Halloween Holy Again
The first and most important thing to do is to start seeing Halloween as “All Hallows Eve” and in its proper liturgical context. It is the first day of a triduum that used to be called “All Hallowtide,” “Hallowtide,” or “Hallowmas” which was made up of All Hallows Eve (October 31), All Saints Day (November 1), and All Souls Day (November 2). So if you are going to take your kids out trick-or-treating, go to evening mass on the 31st or at the very least ask your priest to offer a small prayer service before you head out.
Certainly the vesper readings for October 31st “O may thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold, Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old, and win, with them, the victor’s crown of gold. Alleluia, Alleluia!” are quite fitting for heading out on into the darkness of the night (and our culture).
If You are Going out Trick or Treating
When it comes to costumes, the most obvious choice is to have your kids dress up as Biblical figures or saints. If you have ever perused Butler’s Lives of the Saints, you will know there are hundreds of saints that rarely get recognition, so your kids will never run out of ideas. However, there are also many great literary figures who are worthy of emulating, such as the characters from C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series or J.R.R. Tolkien’s stories such as The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, or his lesser known Farmer Giles of Ham. But there are also other great works that have notable characters such as the Redwall series by Brian Jacques, the very Catholic retelling of Robin Hood by the Augustine Institute, or “Aldonia” from the Chasing Liberty series by Theresa Linden.
Also don’t be afraid to do a little ecclesiastical appropriation with any ready made costumes you might have lying around. Do you have a witch’s hat? Stick a cross on top and to turn it into the rebuilt steeple of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Got a Disney princess costume? There were quite a few saints who were royal ladies. Have a Chewbacca costume? Your child can go as St. Christopher according to the strange legend of him told in Jonathan Pageau’s God’s Dog graphic novel.
As for parents, the best investment you can make for Halloween is to purchase a strand of fairy lights with which to light your way. Try gluing a crucifix on the bottom of a jar or on top of a walking stick. Then use the fairy lights to adorn the jar or stick, and carry it with you as you are out and about. The point of course, is to let everyone know, in no uncertain terms, what you are celebrating and who is the true Light of the World. Especially on Halloween.
If You are Staying Home and Handing Out Candy
Instead of the haunted house or graveyard themes, study photos of famous cathedrals or churches from around the world and try to emulate some of their features in your yard. If you are going to carve pumpkins, then in addition to some goofy faces, try carving some Catholic symbols in them. Years ago I found this booklet in a “for sale” box at the theology library at my college called The Cross, which had over 50 images of different kinds of crosses throughout history. For years, I used it for inspiration when carving pumpkins, gourds, and squashes for Halloween, since they always sparked a conversation.
Instead of spooking music (not that I ever found J.S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor “scary”), try playing Gregorian chant or other sacred music by Palestrina, Tomás Louis de Victoria, Fr. Antonio Vivaldi of Four Seasons fame (you knew he was ordained a priest, right?), or any of the other great Catholic composers throughout history. Not only will you set a more wholesome mood, but it will once again create opportunities for conversations about the faith.
By all means hand out some decent candy, and don’t be one of those people who hand out black licorice (ok, well maybe to teens who show up without a costume just looking for free candy). But highlight your best Catholic hospitality, just in case you end up “entertaining” any angels on that night. Offer hot cider or cocoa, a cup of soup, or even a cappuccino (named after the Capuchin Friars!). If it is permitted in your locality, purchase some Trappist beer and offer a small cup (upon which you’ve written a small blessing) to the adults that visit your home. And yes if you can, get a priest to bless the food and drink or offer up your own as head of the household. Never know who it might keep away!
Obviously, there are an almost endless amount of things you could do to make Halloween more fortifying of your faith, but the few ideas mentioned above can be carried out on short notice. So tap into the Sensus Fidei and use your imagination to take back and embrace a holiday that is ours and make it holy again.
Photo Credit- catholiccuisine.blogspot. com