The Mystery & Modern Mayhem of Halloween

This isn’t one of those rabid, puritanical attacks on Halloween and all of its accouterments by a socially maladjusted homeschooling father whose introverted children aren’t allowed to have any fun.

Nor is it one of those articles that grants you license to send your kids out to participate in activities that, somewhere deep in your heart of hearts, you suspect they shouldn’t go anywhere near. Perhaps your conscience is prodding you about this. Maybe your mind did a double-take today when you passed the local county fairgrounds advertising their perennial favorite, THE SEVEN STORIES OF HELL, “haunted” house that every self-respecting kid must pass through at least once this season. This could be evidence that something is amiss in the way we are celebrating Halloween.

The evidence is also on display in the array of articles that crop up, year after year, explaining the “Catholic origins” of Halloween and how the myriad of modern Halloween activities are actually unobjectionable, even good, for everybody. If folks weren’t bothered by at least some of the elements of this weird secular holiday and its practices, then nobody would want to read the articles, and the ink and digital bytes would not continue to pour forth. The fact is that there is a yawning (and growing) chasm between the authentic Catholic celebration of this awesome Feast and the modern American version of Halloween.

A Secular Holiday?!  

That’s right, I called Halloween a secular holiday. It most emphatically is. That is not to say that it does not have some Catholic roots, which I concede. But, then again, so does every Protestant sect.

Depending upon what author and history you consider authoritative, some of our modern practices may have an early pagan genesis from both the Celts (and their “Samhain” festival) and the Romans (bobbing for apples and drinking apple cider). Moreover, most of the modern practices associated with Halloween are not specifically Catholic in origin. They derive from a variety of secular, superstitious, and even anti-catholic influences, including: an Irish custom of carving out turnips and placing a lighted candle inside to ward off evil spirits; an English Protestant tradition of going door-to-door and demanding beer and cakes – a “trick-or-treat” intended to mock Guy Fawkes and insult his fellow Catholics; and a greeting card industry decision to include witches as one of the centerpieces of the festival during the 1800’s.

Now, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the Church borrowing from practices that have as their source some secular, pagan, or even anti-Catholic belief system, as it has done throughout the centuries with such things as wedding rings, Easter eggs, and the Christmas tree. However, such customs adopted must clearly also be Baptized in the Faith if we wish to retain them without undue influence of the secularism or paganism they originally represented. That is to say, the interior meaning of these customs and traditions must be transformed and conformed to Christ, given new and more profound meanings, and they must assist us on the path toward salvation.

But what about those Catholic roots?

It is easy to discern the distinctively Catholic nature and origins of Halloween. The name itself is merely a contraction of the term, “All Hallows Evening,” or Hallowe’en, and refers to the Vigil of All Hallows Day (more generally known as All Saints Day). All Saints Day, a feast commonly celebrated in the early Church, was mentioned by St. Ephrem the Syrian during a homily in the fourth century. Much later, during the eight century, Pope Saint Gregory III consecrated a chapel in the Basilica of St. Peter to all the saints, fixing the anniversary as November 1st. Pope Gregory IV later extended this feast to the entire Church. The Vigil we call Halloween, then, is clearly Catholic, perhaps peculiarly so. Only the Catholic Church lays claim to divinely revealed knowledge of specific individuals who have “won the race” and are in heaven. Only the Church celebrates their victory in Christ with such reverence and rejoicing. Furthermore, only the Church recognizes that there are souls continuing the process of purification and sanctification in the temporary suffering we call Purgatory – but this recognition and associated doctrine has little to do with the Vigil of the Feast of All Saints, a fact that is often overlooked by those who argue for a full participation in the modern secular Halloween observances.

Fear, Fun, Derision, Delusion

While there are a variety of nuances, the proponents of full participation in the modern distortion of the Catholic holiday can be grouped, generally, into five categories:

1)      Halloween is the tradition of the Church, and must be preserved. Sure, Halloween is a tradition of the Church. Of course, it must be preserved. But this begs the very question at hand: How? How are we to preserve this tradition? In what manner shall we celebrate this sacred vigil? Perhaps we could make a visit to the aforementioned “haunted house,” where we can rub elbows with Baal and those who are pretending (only pretending, we hope) to be his priests? Or perhaps we should instead take our children to visit to our local parish, where they can receive the Living God, “Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity,” and even have the opportunity to rub elbows with one of his holy priests, a priest forever in the line of Melchizedek.

2)      The Scary and the Spooky serve a righteous and definite purpose. One article that takes this approach as its departure point is, in fact, entitled “The Fun of Fear.” Another author says that if we skip the scary and go straight for the glory, we are cheating ourselves. The implication is that, if in a celebration to honor the Saints in heaven and their Glorious Master we omit a night of homage to the shadowy and sinister, we will be missing out on…the “fun” of being afraid? This same author goes on to say, “we must know the cold and darkness to recognize the light.” This is upside down. We are fashioned in the Imago Dei, and the darkness of sin and death has meaning only insofar as it is a deprivation or absence of the Light of Christ.

Sacred Scripture exhorts us to be not afraid 365 times. When he began his Pontificate, Blessed John Paul II’s first words were “Be not afraid.” Christ’s victory over sin and death frees us from the servitude of fearing them. And this is so much more beautiful, fulfilling, and authentically Catholic than some deliberate quest to participate in the culture of death and fear that is modern secular Halloween.

3)      By dressing in costumes that mimic Satan and his minions, we have the opportunity to mock the damned and even death itself. Perhaps this is so. But to what end? Christ’s victory over death is whole and complete, and we partake in His victory as His adopted sons – so what substantial good do we do by mocking death? And are the damned any more damned by our mockery? Our ridicule does not add to their suffering and pain. And even if it did, one could hardly claim this a charitable desire or dignified effort on our part. Don’t get me wrong, the damned “are wicked beyond recall, and should be looked upon as enemies.” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, Q.103, A.2) But the damned, be they fallen angels or human beings, are still by their nature, persons created by the Almighty. It seems ignoble that we should spend our time on earth deriding them for choosing to reject Our Lord. In fact, St. Thomas also tells us that derision is a sin distinct from others, noting that “the derider intends to shame the person he derides.” (Ibid, II-II. Q.75, A.1) Finally, we recognize that “imitation is the highest form of flattery.” Regardless of the nobility of intentions, the practical effects in donning the garb of the Enemy may result in an unexpected plunge into the Icarian Sea. Leave the punishment of the damned to the Inscrutable and Eternal Wisdom of the Lord of Heaven and Earth.

4)      We can baptize the secular practices of Halloween by participating in them. As we have observed, the Church has Christened many secular customs and even institutions through the centuries. As we have also observed, this process requires that such practices be made holy, not just co-opted with the spurious claim that they are now Christian simply because we do them too. I am not suggesting that any single secular Halloween ritual is, by itself, intrinsically evil or irredeemable. I do suggest, however, that the zeitgeist of modern Halloween is indistinguishable from the culture of death. Note that I did not merely say it is focused on death and our mortality, like Good Friday or the Divine Mercy Chaplet – healthy, Christ-centered kinds of exercise. Instead, the secular Halloween relishes in death and destruction. The violent, dark culture is becoming increasingly darker and more violent. This is not unexpected, as Blessed Mother Teresa once observed, “…any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want.”

5)      It’s just plain fun. The corollary is, “…and everybody’s doing it.” This same logic brought us the “free love” movement of the 1970’s, from which we still suffer. Adherents of this sophomoric observation need a primer in St. Thomas regarding apparent goods versus the true good.

Rescue Mission – Dynamic Catholic Halloween.

Doff the dresses of the damned. Cast off the candy of the cursed. Erect a hedge against the haunted houses. In short, let’s truly take back the celebration of Halloween. Not by participating in the vapid and even injurious practices that the culture of death insists are natural and harmless. Not by celebrating fictitious ghosts or the very real principalities and powers of hell. Not by helping to normalize the senseless, gory, and even occult practices that have become naughtily intertwined with modern secular Halloween.

We already have our days and observances for remembering death and the Church Suffering. Every Friday is, in fact, a day to focus and unite our prayers with the Passion and Death of our Lord. We venerate the Crucifix. We pray the Sorrowful Mysteries. We abstain from meat (that’s right, it’s not just for Lent, kiddos – check out Canon 1250-1253). We offer acts of penitence and prayer. We also annually observe Lent, with Ash Wednesday and forty days of penitential practices. Don’t forget both the Penitential Rite and the prayers for the faithful departed offered at every Mass. Finally, we have the appropriate day to remember the holy, suffering souls in purgatory – All Souls Day – a mere 24 hours after All Saints.

Make Vigil of All Saints Day what Holy Mother Church intends – a celebration of the Mystery of the Victory of the Saints in Christ! Encouraging your children to outfit themselves as Holy Men and Women, learn about their lives, and imitate their virtues is not, as one author rather irreverently remarks, a “pantomime of the saints.” It is a dynamic and hands-on way of teaching them about the Church’s “Hall of Fame.”

This Halloween, make a commitment to make it count. Attend Mass as a family and receive the Holy Eucharist, the Source and Summit of our faith. Afterward, host a parish or multi-family festival where guests participate in games, share a meal, learn something about the Faith, and try to guess each other’s Saintly identities. You might even pass out some treats – Catholics are allowed to eat candy too! Even better, invite some friends to the celebration who might otherwise never learn the truth about Halloween. Maybe your next Halloween will be an opportunity for someone’s eternal salvation.

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C.W. Lyons is the author of The Catholic Bible Concordance, and holds Master’s Degrees in Theology and Executive Fire Service Leadership. He puts food on the family table as the Fire Chief at a career fire department. With his wife and seven children, he homeschools in relative peace in Northeast Ohio, and enjoys volleyball, the outdoors, and books (especially theology and philosophy).

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