Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
How Halloween Can Be Redeemed
Halloween has grown into a major secular
holiday in American culture. But for those who don't value devotion
to the saints, the Eve has become "hollow" instead of "hallow."
The purpose behind it has been lost'like celebrating New Year's
Eve without a New Year's Day. Take away the saints and our beliefs
about the dignity and destiny of human beings, and the only thing
left is pre-Christian superstition regarding the dead.
Among many Christians, there has been
concern that things have gotten out of hand. After all, doesn't
Halloween glorify evil? Is it right to send our children out as
devils and vampires, or is it better to emphasize the saints, whose
nearly forgotten feast day is the reason for Halloween? Hallow
is the same word for "holy" that we find in the Lord's Prayer, and
e'en is a contraction of "evening." The word Halloween
itself is a shortened form of "All Hallows Eve," the day before
All Saints Day. In this Update we'll consider how Catholics
can "redeem" Halloween. This holiday, properly understood and celebrated
with all of its fun trappings, can be a way for us to deepen our
understanding of our faith. The key to this understanding is close
at hand for Catholics in our love of the communion of saints.
Martyr means 'witness'
Until the ninth century the Church celebrated
the popular feast of All Saints on May 13th, during the season of
joy after the Resurrection. This is the light in which we see all
the faithful who have died, especially those whose witness to Christ
is an inspiration. In 835 the date was deliberately changed to November
1 to Christianize the existing pagan time for remembering the dead'to
bring light to the darkness, and hope to the most basic of human
Before canonization was ever thought
of, before the New Testament books even took shape, the human desire
to remember deceased loved ones surfaced. And these were no ordinary
loved ones, these were brothers and sisters who had died in Christ,
as witnesses to Christ. (The Greek word martyr simply means
"witness.") Their death was victory, not defeat; celebration, not
The same way people gather today at the
site of a tragedy on its anniversary to talk to each other and to
reporters, the first Christians gathered on the anniversary of a
martyr's death to remember it the way they knew best: with the "breaking
of the bread." They retold the stories to inspire each other at
a time when faith meant persecution and more martyrdom. Not even
death could break the unity in Jesus which Paul had named "the Body
Anniversaries of local and well-known
martyrs peppered the calendar. Then a pragmatic question arose:
What honor should be given to martyrs whose names were unknown?
Many Christians were thrown to the lions for witnessing to their
faith, not all of them known to the community. By the mid-fourth
century a feast of "All Martyrs" appeared on local calendars. As
persecutions grew less frequent, the feast was extended to include
non-martyr "witnesses," Christians whose lives were "the gospel
in action," as St. Francis de Sales would later call the saints.
One vigil, two feasts
Meanwhile those who were not so saintly
were also being remembered after death. The first Christians were
heirs to the Jewish custom of praying for the dead and offering
sacrifice for them as part of emerging Jewish belief in the resurrection
of the dead.
Today's Christians sometimes forget that
by the time of Christ many Jews, especially the Pharisees, had a
well-developed belief in the resurrection of the dead, which included
trust that the prayer of the living could benefit the dead. It was
with this understanding that, 160 years before Jesus was born, Judah
the Maccabee prayed and offered sacrifice for dead comrades who
had sinned: "For if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again,
it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death"
(2 Maccabees 12:44).
For the first 1,000 years of Christianity
there was no collective memorial for All Souls. Relatives and loved
ones were remembered at Mass on the anniversary of their death,
or until they passed out of living memory. But by the seventh century
monasteries were celebrating an annual Mass for all the deceased
of their order, an idea which spread to the laity. About 1048, an
influential abbot chose November 2 to commemorate All Souls because
it was an obvious companion date and extension of the Feast of All
Saints. Both days are reminders that all of us, living and dead,
are united in a living communion with Christ and one another.
In effect, Halloween became one vigil
for two feasts celebrated by the whole Church. In the 16th century
at the time of the Reformation, most Protestants discarded both
the doctrine of the communion of saints and the practice of praying
for the dead. All Hallows Eve became "hollow" for them, the vigil
of an empty feast day.
How can we keep the religious connection
and curb pre-Christian trappings? Many parishes invite the kids
to dress up for an All Saints procession at the vigil Mass. A boy
wearing a crown and a velour bathrobe is St. Louis, the King of
France. A girl with an armful of silk roses is the Little Flower.
These cute processions are certainly a wonderful way for young Catholics
to learn about the communion of saints.
But many kids are more likely to excitedly
put on ghoulish makeup to get ready for parties or trick or treat.
Their instincts are right: Skeletons and jack-o'-lanterns and shocking
costumes are very much a part of All Hallows Eve. It's the adults
who shy away from eyeballing their own mortality.
The kids are right. Death is not cute.
Halloween began with martyrs, after all, so strange makeup and skull
masks are not out of line. Picture, if you will, an All Saints procession
led by St. Thomas More with his head tucked under his arm. Next
comes St. Lawrence, still attached to the skewer that couldn't keep
him from joking at the very moment he was being roasted alive. Kateri
Tekakwitha is there, her face scarred by smallpox, the white man's
disease which decimated native American tribes.
Our tradition teems with stories of people
who endured terrible things' but never let it interfere with an
underlying joy and trust in God. (Of course, even the saints who
weren't martyred deserve our recognition and imitation!)
Lessons and limits
At Halloween we need to use discernment
to separate the symbols, to protect our children from very real
dangers, to cut through the customs that contradict our relationship
with God, including occult practices (see box below).
At this time of year violent movies with
Halloween settings flood television and video stores; warped personalities
copy malicious acts "for fun"; young people experiment with the
occult because of publicity given to witches and warlocks.
It's precisely because Catholics do believe
in the reality of evil that we promise to turn away from "Satan
and all his works" in the baptismal rite. Here's a chance for parents
(and godparents) to make good on that promise: Be vigilant about
television and video games, don't give warped personalities the
publicity they crave, choose carefully if and where your child will
trick or treat.
Most of all, be free from fear. We who
are in Christ have nothing to fear, and we should be ready with
an answer to those who act as if the devil were the equal and opposite
of God. There is no "equal and opposite" of God. Catholic tradition
tells us that Satan is a created being, a fallen angel; if he had
any "equal and opposite" it would be Michael the Archangel. Still,
there would be no "equality" between Satan and any angel. Christ
has conquered sin and Satan once and for all. All of us, saints
and angels, people of faith living and dead, share in that victory.
(See Catechism of the Catholic Church #391, 395.)
Separating the symbols
So how do we separate the symbols of
Halloween? Do we stop serving cider and doughnuts because apples
were sacred to the Roman goddess Pomona, and doughnuts were once
set out as "food" for the souls of the dead (their circular shape
indicating eternity)? Of course not. Our gratitude for God's bounty
eclipses all that.
What about trick or treat? In the Middle
Ages there was a superstition that those who had died the previous
year without being reconciled to you might rise to haunt you, appearing
as will-o'-the-wisps or ghosts. The apparition jarred you so you
would release them by prayer and forgiveness. You might also appease
them with "soul cakes"'cookies, fried cakes, "treats"'so they wouldn't
do you any mischief with their "tricks." Soon those who were living
began to use the occasion for reconciliation. To wipe the slate
clean for the coming year, they came, masked and unrecognizable,
and boldly bargained for treats.
The connection between trick or treat
and forgiveness deserves to be reclaimed, don't you think? While
we wait for an imaginative catechist to draw up a format, we can
allow our kids to enjoy the costumes, the goodies, the excitement
of traipsing around after dark if we exercise prudence. Most communities
now impose a curfew for trick or treat, and most parents select
the houses of friends they know. Sometimes the PTA will sponsor
a party. Avoiding costumes and decorations that glorify witches
and devils goes without saying, but there's no reason to fear skeletons,
skulls or Thomas More with his head tucked under his arm. After
all, can't skulls and skeletons be healthy reminders of human mortality?
Can't witches and devils symbolize the evil Christ has overcome?
Pumpkins as well as halos
Jack-o'-lanterns have a special place
for Catholics on Halloween when we're able to tell the story. The
saints in their costumes remind us of the great heights we can reach.
Skeletons, skulls and trick or treaters remind us of our own mortality
and the need to pray for the dead. Jack stands in between as a one-man
The folktale of "Jack o' the Lantern"
arrived with early Irish Catholic colonists in Maryland. It quickly
grew in popularity because of the independent spirit admired in
this country. Jack has the cleverness to outwit the devil himself,
but it isn't enough to get him into heaven (see box below). He must
roam forever between heaven and earth, holding his pumpkin lantern
high. (Originally the lantern was cut from a turnip; after the story
crossed the ocean, colonists changed it to the colorful vegetable
they found here, the pumpkin.)
As you carve your pumpkin (or roast the
oiled seeds at 325 degrees for 25 minutes), tell others the tale
behind jack-o'-lanterns. Talk about what it means to be a saint
and why Jack didn't make the grade. Don't be afraid to point out
the "moral of the story" (which is why it was told in the first
place). Jack was so self-centered he never helped another human
being. He was given a good set of brains, but he used this gift
only for himself. He knew about faith and the power of the cross,
but he used it like a piece of magic instead of as the way of Jesus
(see Luke 9:23). The cross is indeed strong enough to vanquish the
devil. But embracing the cross is what brings eternal life.
Halloween's positive messages
Halloween and its back-to-back feast
days mean more than talking about our favorite saints who lived
in another time, another place. It's also an opportunity to talk
about what's needed for holiness now (perhaps even martyrdom now,
sad to say).
In addition we have a chance to face
up to differences that still divide Catholics and Protestants, maybe
even a chance to evangelize. "I believe...in the communion of saints,"
we say every Sunday in the Creed. How many of us know what this
doctrine really means?
Do we "worship" or "adore" our beloved
saints, as some non-Catholics think? Not at all. We honor them and
learn from their example; adoration belongs to God alone. We ask
the saints to pray for us the same way we might ask a good friend
to pray. A favorite quotation about prayer begins, "Where two or
three are gathered together in my name" (Matthew 18:20). The "two
or three" aren't necessarily limited to the living. It's comforting
to have friends always available to pray with you, a whole "cloud
of witnesses," in fact! (see Hebrews 12:1).
Halloween also invites us to talk openly
about death in a culture that labors mightily to deny it. Seventy-five
percent of Americans do not have a valid will, much less a Living
Will or an organ donor card. "If I die..." people say, instead of,
"when I die." Do we think death is optional? Death is a fact of
life. When St. Francis of Assisi lay dying he said, "Welcome, Sister
Death," recognizing that death was just another creaturely thing
in a world that would one day pass away.
Occasionally we must push the "pause"
button in our busy lives to consider our own mortality with all
its spiritual and practical consequences. The Church gives us two
feasts and the whole month of November to do this.
Halloween is like our Mardi Gras before
a very serious Lent. We should be able to laugh at the dark side
and dress up in costumes and have parties. Let's reclaim our heritage
with all the story power, creativity and joyous good fun that we
can. Let's use it to help us become the saints we are each called
Halloween is a victory celebration, after
Next: Day-by-Day Advent Program (by
Elizabeth Bookser Barkley)