Recapturing the Catholic Spirit of Halloween

It can be easy in our culture to forget that Halloween is none other than the beginning of the Feast of All Saints. After all, it is All Hallows’ Eve, or All Saints’ Eve. As with the tradition of Christmas Eve, the Solemnity of All Saints begins at sundown and continues on into the next day. This is a tradition that has long been established in Judaism and adopted by the Church. In Western culture, Halloween has taken on a macabre, grotesque, and somewhat occult dimension over the last two centuries. The reasons for this are varied, but has more to do with the modern sentimentality towards a long lost paganism of imagination than any pagan religion of old.

In fact, driving through a neighborhood in the U.S. decorated for the secular version of Halloween looks more like something out of a Saw movie than ancient paganism. Given the violent tendencies and dabbles into the occult, it is easy to see why more and more parents are opting out of Halloween festivities, but this is a misunderstanding of what Halloween truly is and why it is something that should be embraced and celebrated by Catholics. In fact, Catholics should be re-taking the holiday away from the secular hands of darkness without hope in favor of the glorious truth of the Communion of Saints and the salvation offered through Jesus Christ.

The feast of All Saints has a long history in the Church and at one point enjoyed the pride of place of Octave, which is only reserved for Christmas and Easter these days. As Fr. Grunow points out over at Word on Fire, the feast began in earnest in the 7th Century:

The practice of a festival day to honor the whole communion of Saints, rather than that just a single saint, seems to happen for the first time in the Catholic Church with the consecration of the Pantheon as a public place for the Church’s worship. This happened in the year 609 (or 610) on May 13th. The Pantheon had been originally dedicated for the use of Roman religion as a place where all the gods would be honored. Boniface displaced the images of the gods from their shrines and gave the building over to the Saints of the Church, particularly the Martyrs. This was a kind of “in your face” to pagan culture. Boniface was saying that the old gods had been defeated and were defeated by the faith of the Church’s Martyrs… How we get from May 13th to November 1st is interesting. The festival of All Saints seems to emerge from the dedication of another Roman church that was consecrated by Pope Gregory III. The church is named St. Peter and all the Saints. It was a subsequent pope, Gregory IV, who extended the annual festival that commemorates this church dedication to the whole Church as All Saints Day. The extension of festivals specific to the Church of Rome is part and parcel of how the Catholic Faith becomes the underlying cultural matrix from which a new kind of European civilization would emerge.

All Saints is a beautiful feast day that serves as a reminder to the faithful of the glorious triumph of Jesus Christ and that the Communion of Saints are in communion with us, the Church Militant, and the Church Suffering (the souls in Purgatory). We are all united in Christ.

“So it is that the union of the wayfarers with the brethren who sleep in the peace of Christ is in no way interrupted, but on the contrary, according to the constant faith of the Church, this union is reinforced by an exchange of spiritual goods.”

Catechism of the Catholic Church 955

What are some ways we can re-capture the truth, beauty, and tradition of this feast day?

The secular version of Halloween does serve to remind human beings of their mortality and the evil of the devil. Catholics have an opportunity to share that sin, death, and Satan have been conquered through Jesus Christ and that there are many who can witness to this fact through the lives of the saints. As is always the risk with human beings, things can come out of balance, and Catholics have an opportunity to bring the good, beautiful, and true into the harmless Halloween festivities like trick-or-treating.

Seek Friendship with the Saints

In order to grow in love of All Saints, we must bring the saints into our lives and our families. The Church’s liturgical calendar provides the faithful with the rhythms and celebrations that help us to live out our faith more deeply. Begin to look into the lives of various saints you see on the calendar. Find those who speak to you and with whom you sense a deep kinship. Perhaps begin with your own name or re-visit your Confirmation saint. The saints desire our friendship and to do good for us as they stand before the Glory of God. Saint Dominic said: “Do not weep, for I shall be more useful to you after my death and I shall help you then more effectively than during my life.”  While Saint Therese said: “I want to spend my heaven in doing good on earth.”

Go to Mass

All Saints is no longer a holy day of obligation everywhere. This year it falls on a Sunday, so it is a holy day of obligation. Regardless of what day it falls on each year, there is no greater way to celebrate a feast day than through the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The truest and greatest celebration we can give to a saint is the reception of the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist.

Celebrating the Solemnity of All Saints in the Home

To be Catholic is to be counter-cultural. That is a reality we have to come to accept. It does not mean that we do not appreciate the goodness and beauty within our culture, but it does mean that on many occasions we will have to operate differently. It means that we should encourage our children to embrace true heroes and heroines who can be found in the Communion of Saints. Dressing up as St. George or St. Elizabeth of Hungary is to still allow our children to be Knights and Princesses or Queens for trick-or-treating. It may be that we adopt a Disney Princess dress into a Catholic Saint or Mary. Cinderella’s dress is blue and that is Our Lady’s color, but the dress may need some additions and can easily become Mary, Queen of Heaven. There is nothing wrong with imagination and make-belief, G.K. Chesterton once said:

“Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon. Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.”

However, for Halloween, we have an opportunity to bring the Catholic tradition of the feast to the forefront and that is the celebration of the saints. All Saints is to rejoice in the heroes of the Catholic Faith who have followed Jesus Christ to their eschatological end. They are our examples of how we too can persevere on the journey and stand before the Beatific Vision upon our death. Children live a simple, but profound faith, and trick-or-treating as a Catholic saint can serve as a beautiful witness.

Carving pumpkins is a fun tradition. The Church has often incorporated the seasons into her calendar and that includes harvest time. Pumpkins and winter squash are a part of the harvest for this time of year. Instead of ghoulish representations or scary Jack-o-Lanterns, why not carve something beautiful from our Catholic Faith? It can be something representative of a particular saint, a monstrance with the Holy Eucharist, or even something as simple as IHS or Happy Feast Day. If you are an artist, how about St. Michael defeating Lucifer? The options are endless.

One of the great ways people celebrate is through a special meal. All Saints is a great time to cook up a harvest meal or comfort food to enjoy with family and friends. Make the meal a party and bring out pictures and statues of the saints you have around the house. If you don’t have anything handy, then print some out from the Internet. There are amazing depictions of the Communion of Saints available online. One of the great blessings of being Catholic is the year round celebrations that occur and can be adopted by families. It is a time to live in the knowledge that we are surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses” and that we do not walk this journey alone. There are countless saints cheering us on.

Have an All Saints Party at Your Parish

Here in the South there is a Halloween tradition called “Trunk-or-Treating”. People pull their cars into a parking lot, usually a church, and kids trick-or-treat at each vehicle. This could easily be adopted by Catholic parishes and could be followed by a social. Families would be encouraged to dress as their favorite saint and to celebrate the spiritual gifts we receive in our friendship with the saints.

These are just a few suggestions for incorporating the Catholic faith into Halloween. The possibilities are endless! There is no reason why Catholics should have to defer a beautiful and rich holy day to the secular culture so that it no longer resembles what it once was in actuality. We have to decide how we want to celebrate this great day, as Catholics celebrating the reality of Heaven, Christ, and the Church, or a confusion of darkness devoid of redemption? Beauty is one of the most effective evangelization tools at our disposal. By sharing the beauty of the Solemnity of All Saints with a lost culture, we can show others Who and what they are made for, and that is unification with God. We can answer the darkness with Light.

All you holy saints of God, ora pro nobis.

image: All Saints Vigil, Priory of the Immaculate Conception (Washington, DC) / Province of St Joseph / Flickr

By

Constance T. Hull is a wife, mother, homeschooler, and a graduate student theologian with an emphasis in philosophy.  Her desire is to live the wonder so passionately preached in the works of G.K. Chesterton and to share that with her daughter and others. While you can frequently find her head inside of a great work of theology or philosophy, she considers her husband and daughter to be her greatest teachers. She is passionate about beauty, working towards holiness, the Sacraments, and all things Catholic. She is also published at The Federalist, Public Discourse, and blogs frequently at Swimming the Depths (www.swimmingthedepths.com).

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  • PatriotGal

    Years ago, 1952, to be exact, when we were in Catholic school, our principal Sister Herbert Marie decided that our school would celebrate All Saints Day by dressing up as saints for Halloween. At first, we thought it mean, but as we all grew in the knowledge of saints, excited at what our costumes would be like, we thoroughly enjoyed the celebration. The day before, we would all go to confession. We started our day with Mass, then in our classrooms, we each stood to share with our classmates the bio of the saint we had chosen. The entire school paraded in the streets around our school in our beautiful saints’ attire. Each year, thereafter, we looked forward to Halloween so we could celebrate All Saints Day and I think the neighbors did, as well, so they could see us all dressed up.

  • JMC

    Yours was far from the only school that did things like this. My school did it, too. Sadly, my mother insisted that my patron saint was St. John the Baptist (I later found out that my name actually derives from James, not John), and, since I was a girl, dressing up as John the Baptist was not appropriate, so I never got to go to those parties. Somehow, it never occurred to either of us to choose some other saint instead. Sister said “your patron saint,” and to a 7-year-old’s way of thinking (and, apparently, my mother’s, too), that was that.
    .
    In some areas of this country, the “patron saint” idea would fall flat even among Catholics, because modern names no longer reflect names of saints. They reflect places, events, and sometimes are even just made-up words. I personally know someone who named a set of twins “Lemonjello” and “Orangejello,” with a pronunciation that makes them sound like exotic French or Basque names. Not until I saw the names in writing did I have any clue as to what they really were. And even more shocking, those names were not out of place when those kids started school, because everybody else had names that were equally odd. Listening to confirmands’ names at a Confirmation Mass, there are times you expect someone to cue the screeching brakes sound effect when you hear some of those made-up words attempt to flow into the name of a Catholic saint.
    For kids who have been confirmed, picking out a saint is a little easier. They have a patron saint. For those who haven’t yet been confirmed, encouraging them to dress up as saints is a great way to give them an opportunity to do research and pick a saint…who knows, they may even choose their patron saint years before Confirmation Day arrives. What better role model for a kid?

  • Mymomchoselife

    I work in a catholic school ( yes the small caps on purpose). Today as I walked the halls I saw a witch hanging on a door and various other witchy things on the walls. I am horrified. I had a parent tell me that her son was thinking out if the box this year for a costume, I said …oh he is dressing up as a saint? She said no, Freddie Kruger. How sad this is to me. Lord have mercy on us.

  • Jude

    My son had a little girl in his class whose name was Desire. Not Desiree, Desire. I swear some people are naming their children as though they will grow up to be strippers. Each week before their homilies our priests read out a list of girls whom are considering abortion (first names only). My husband and I notice that pretty much every week there is at least one named Jasmine.

  • Jude

    At our parish we go “A Souling” on Halloween night. Each piece of candy has the name of a deceased loved one on it. The children go from classroom to classroom in the religious education building. At each door the say “A soul cake, A soul cake, A prayer for a soul cake.” Each doorway is manned by a costumed saint and decorated appropriately. The children are all dressed as saints, and we pray a Litany of the Saints before we begin. There is also a small bonfire outside and refreshments. When the children eat their candy at home, they first say a prayer for the person whose name is on that piece of candy.
    This has been sooooo much better than the inappropriate costumes and too scary decorations in our neighborhood.

  • Constance

    I love this idea! I read about it when I was doing research for this article. Thanks for sharing!

  • Constance

    This is a good example of how we need to re-focus on the Catholic roots of Halloween. Like I said in the article, there is nothing wrong with make-believe, although I would draw a line well before Freddie Kruger, myself. The Feast Day is a beautiful one that we should be sharing with the culture and the people sitting next to us in the pews.

  • Constance

    Yes, there is a problem of Catholic parents not bestowing Christian names upon their children. This is something priests and deacons should be addressing at Baptism prep because a Christian name is required at Baptism, even if it is a middle name or patron name.

  • Wulfrano Ruiz Sainz

    It’s a substitution. Devils instead of saints!

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