Halloween poses a serious concern to Catholic families nowadays. Besides various occult inspirations, many Catholics are uneasy with Halloween’s ostentatious glorification of ugliness and evil. Also distressing are the prevalent trends of psychosis, vulgarity, and violence.
What conscientious parent would not be wary?
Even with such adversity, it is still possible to align Halloween with the inheritance of Christian culture. Once Catholics consider—perhaps in desperation of the times—what Halloween can be, its restoration is arguably a duty.
Though many elements of Halloween have branched into unholy and unhealthy regions, its root sleeps in sacred ground. Both the feast and the vigil of All Saints Day have been observed since the early eighth century, instituted by Pope Gregory III; and Pope Gregory IV applied them to the Universal Church. Families of faith frequently attempt to awaken this hallowed origin by instructing children to pray for the Holy Souls in purgatory and to invoke the patronage of the Holy Saints in heaven. Such activities are, without doubt, laudable as they encourage a traditional awareness and attitude by turning the minds and hearts of children toward eternal things. Moreover, as a compromise with the cultural demands of celebrating Halloween, All Saints Day costume parties have become quite fashionable—if not the only respectable thing to do.
While these lighthearted vigils of the feast are unobjectionable in themselves, such celebrations modify in principle the vision of the Church’s liturgical observations and theological mores leading up to and flowing from Halloween.
After the feast of Pentecost, the liturgical calendar enters into the period of the Church on earth, moving towards the consummation of all things in Christ. Preceding the culminating celebration of Christ the King comes the festival of All Hallows Eve and the feasts of All Saints and All Souls. It is in this time of gathering, of harvest, that the Church places “Hallowe’en” in the drama of human salvation. Halloween offers a fitting occasion for the beginning of the Church Militant’s liturgy of the faithful departed, representing man’s mortality and his longing for eternal life.
The value of any Christian tradition lies in its pedagogical influence. The implication of Halloween is that death precedes the possibility of saintly glory and the redemptive suffering of purgatory. Of course death is the result of sin, but Halloween can portray it as the precursor to new life by its liturgical placement. Furthermore, the power of grace is only known in comparison to evil; and conversely the horror of evil is only grasped in light of what is good, true, and beautiful. In this way, Halloween ghouls can recall the darkness of error as well as mankind’s fulfillment in Christ.
Thus, Halloween can depict a vital element in the re-enactment of salvation history. Although it is not an official holy day, as it evokes fallen nature and fallen creation, it can be informed by the liturgical rhythms of man’s deliverance from the demonic. Linked to All Saints and All Souls, Halloween imagery presents an integral illustration of the human passage and the consequence of Christ. Without death, there would be no saints in heaven or souls in purgatory. Without Christ, man would have no right to ridicule the devil. Halloween offers a comic, cultural expression of the truths that comprise man’s participation in Christ’s Resurrection.
Halloween pageantry proclaims that death is stripped of his sting since the dominion of hell has been overthrown. The victory of the Resurrection and the glory of the saints come forth from death and the destruction of the power of sin. Halloween celebrates Christ’s triumph through parody—or exultant mockery—subjecting the symbols of the grave to satirical derision. Witches, devils, ghouls, skeletons, and such spooks become caricatures of an impotent evil. Followers of Christ are conquerors, and no longer slaves, of these elemental creatures. There is no fear in them, which Halloween rejoices in.
The pantomime of saints, on the other hand, diminishes this dramatic representation of the mystery of redemption from death to new life. Admittedly, no one can argue against honoring the saints, whose feast comes the next day. Nevertheless, such practices underline an unfortunate lack of understanding as to what Halloween masquerades can liturgically signify: the victory over death and the subservience of evil. Only a partial account of salvation exists without the garish jesters of Halloween.
Such symbolism is not a glorification of evil, but an acknowledgment of it. Evil should be assigned a similar role through Halloween as it has in gothic cathedrals—the architectural icons of order and harmony in creation, where even the devil has his place. Images of evil are man’s to ridicule as dethroned. Saints and angels cannot teach the theological truth of the dragon and the gargoyle. Halloween, if true to this purpose, debases the macabre by playful ritual. The eradication of ghosts and goblins from Halloween does not perforce safeguard the spiritual and the holy. Though often dismissed as uncouth, fiends and phantoms are emblems of spiritual warfare—and of the victory already won in Christ. Without such reminders, communities may be lulled to sleep, allowing the reality of evil to become more powerful in the neglectful silence.
The “baptism” of pagan or even neutral festivals is a duty of Christian culture: to orient the objectives and perspectives of problematic social events towards the Faith, and claim another celebration for Christ on earth. Since the festivities of Halloween are so established, it behooves Catholics to defend their children and their Faith from corruption by replacing base freakishness with the flair of the spiritual. But there is no need to Christianize what is already Christian. The Halloween challenge lies in drawing the emphasis away from sheer terror, and towards mystery, merriment, and the miraculous. Believers must not fear death, whose faith resists those influences that declare death ultimately fearful.
Catholic parents should, in this spirit, combat the secular and satanic plagues that currently infect the traditions of All Hallows Eve, choosing between the trick and the treat. Let Halloween retain its howling ghosts, but re-align and re-order its purpose and iconography so that it may become a stepping-stone for children to grow in familiarity with the Holy Ghost.
Editor’s note: this article was originally published in Crisis Magazine on Oct 4, 2013 and is reprinted here with permission.