Popular evangelical families typically share the same sentiment about Halloween, “We don’t practice it because of its origins.” When I first heard that, I began to worry and wonder what they were referring to. Should I not be celebrating Halloween? Should I not allow my children to celebrate the holiday?
Although Halloween does have a history that traces back to the Celts and their pagan celebration of Samhein, it also has a history that is related to the liturgical year and the Church. The Church has a strong tradition of inculturation, sifting through each culture to redeem whatever is good. The most obvious example of this is in our liturgies. A Mass in Uganda has a different flavor than a Mass in Spain which has a different flavor from a Mass in the United States. All of them are Roman Catholic liturgies, but they may incorporate different styles of music, or different fabrics and embroidery for vestments.
Missionaries are the ultimate experts when it comes to inculturation. Church history is chock full of examples of missionaries traveling to foreign lands, identifying what was beautiful or good about a culture, and claiming it for Christ. One of the earliest examples of this is found in the New Testament, when Paul connects the religious practices of the Athenians to Christianity. Paul tells them, “…as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines, I even discovered an altar inscribed, ‘To an Unknown God.’ What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you.” (Acts 17:23) Paul could have easily declared everything in the Athenian religious tradition anathema, but he didn’t. He found an aspect of their culture worthy of redemption, and he claimed it for Christ.
Halloween is no different. A celebration that was initially one of fear and superstition for the Celts became one of joy and triumph for the Church. The Church wisely situated her feast of All Saints on November 1, and Halloween (All Hallows Eve) became the new focus of the cultural practice. What was once a night of fear became connected instead to the triumph of Christ and his saints – who defeated death and the devil.
Admittedly, this is the ideal focus, and it has often been forgotten in modern practice. For evangelicals and anyone who doesn’t celebrate the joyous solemnity of All Saints or All Souls, Halloween is constantly in danger of slipping back to its pagan origins. All too often, people focus on what is scary or evil, and lose sight of the real meaning of All Hallows Eve. For that reason, many well-intentioned people of faith fear that they can have nothing to do with the celebration.
But the Church is not called to wholesale rejection of the world – we are called to claim it for Christ. Halloween is no different. Even the best of Catholics are tempted to focus merely on making Halloween fun and innocent, and miss the opportunity to make it a profound moment of catechesis.
As my oldest has grown up, we have had to face the question of Halloween. Do we celebrate it? How do we celebrate it? Now that she has started school, we know that we can’t totally shield her from questions like the inevitable, “What costume are you wearing for Halloween?” Instead, we’ve picked out Halloween costumes, and chosen to make it a moment for catechesis.
Halloween, we explain to her, is the night before All Saints Day, and it makes most sense in that light.
The saints are those who have fought the good fight, run the race, and have shared in the victory of Christ over sin and death. Our firstborn definitely leans in the direction of being overly cautious and fearful, so this is a powerful proclamation for her. Christ conquered death and all the scary things. We don’t have to be afraid of them anymore, because we have Jesus on our side! It’s because of that that people can dress in scary costumes, and put up scary decorations, because we know the truth – death no longer has a hold on us.
Are most of the people who are decorating their yards with fake cemeteries and giant cobwebs, laughing in the face of death? No. Are most of the people dressing up as witches and zombies and vampires doing so with a wink and nudge, “Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting?!” No.
But neither did the Athenians build a shrine to the unknown God in anticipation of the Incarnation. Yet, that didn’t prevent Paul from claiming it for Christ.
Our call is the same. We could entirely denounce it, or we can reclaim Halloween for Christ, in light of his and his saints’ victory over death and evil. We can point to those scary things, nudge our children, and remind them, “Jesus already beat death and sin. We don’t have to be afraid!”