One of these days, I’ll have to actually see The Nightmare Before Christmas.
But that’s not the point today. No, it’s time to address two questions: “What is Halloween?” and “Isn’t it a pagan thing and Catholics should stay away?”
Yes, that question. The one that comes up every year.
First, Halloween isn’t a pagan holiday.
I know, I know. Bear with me. This is like the pentagram. Did you know that the pentagram, the symbol of modern neo-paganism, wasn’t associated with anything other than Christianity (and math, and people drawing stars when bored or sewing flags) until well into the modern era? In traditional Christian symbology, it represented the Five Wounds of Christ, and sometimes other groups of five. In the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the best translation of which is by J. R. R. Tolkien himself, it’s on Sir Gawain’s shield and is spoken of as a powerful Christian symbol and appropriate for a Christian knight to bear.
Over time, people stopped using it, and then it was resurrected by some English occultist looking for strange symbols. From there, it went on to become a symbol for the pagan revival movement. This sort of thing happens; just look at Christmas trees!
No, the origin of Halloween is about the name: All Hallows’ Eve. November 1st is the Feast of All Hallows (or, in modern usage, All Saints’ Day). It’s good to look at why we call it that before going into the rest.
Why do Catholics celebrate All Saints’ Day? Why is it a day of obligation, where all Catholics must attend Mass? Don’t saints already have their own feast days?
Yes and no. Declared saints have feast days; but “saint” isn’t the title of someone the Church thinks is awesome (though they are pretty awesome). It’s the title of someone in Heaven. Nothing more, nothing less. It doesn’t even mean that this person is a role model, just that he or she is with God, and didn’t take a wrong turn at the afterlife.
The saints we normally think of are the ones that have been infallibly declared as saints. They tend to be role models, but mainly because of the amount of investigation that goes into the process. Anyone who doesn’t make it through that might still be a saint; we just don’t know for certain. This is part of the pope’s teaching authority; when he canonizes someone, it is a fact that this person is in Heaven.
As a result, I get a bit miffed when I hear someone say that the Pope — any of them — has declared too many saints. I’m sorry . . . are you complaining that infallibility is wrong, or that we have too many people in Heaven?
But I digress.
The point is, this is why there’s a Feast of All Saints, as well as a Feast of All Souls — because not everyone who has died is in either Heaven or Hell, and could use some assistance. Mother Theresa would say that she found it disturbing to be called a saint, because it scared her to think that perhaps no one would ever pray for her.
When preparing for these two feasts, which happen to be just the right time for harvest festivals, you would have people celebrating, collecting food for the festival that might otherwise spoil, and putting out decorations. It’s a very Catholic thing.
That doesn’t mean that all of the things associated with Halloween today are very Catholic; just that they’re not inherently anti-Catholic. Yes, some came out of superstition, but not necessarily pagan rituals. Catholics can be superstitious as well, sometimes cloaked in the trappings of Christianity. It can be very hard for even a cradle Catholic to know the difference.
In the case of Halloween, the belief of there being a “day of the dead” as the world turned colder was very natural, and common across many cultures. Since we have an actual pair of feast days on the subject, it became natural to associate that with the idea that there might be a day of the damned as well.
But which came first? Was it actually a pagan thing first, and then Christianized?
Well, even if it were, that’s not a bad thing. We Christianize a lot, going right back to Greek philosophy. But the answer is still no; it predates both the medieval superstition and the modern version that grew into the commercial holiday we call Halloween today. I used to live in Rome; only the American kids celebrated Halloween, and the Italians thought it a very peculiar custom. The closest they had was Carnivale, which is what they have in place of our Mardi Gras, so it’s not even the same time of year. There just isn’t a tradition for it over there, now or in the past. We’ve had the feast (originally celebrated as the Feast of All Martyrs) since the 7th century, and it wasn’t associated with anything like our modern ideas of Halloween, even if you squint really hard.
There were some genuine ghost stories associated with that time of year, though, as described in an essay written by an old classmate of mine from Christendom College, Matt Rose.
The connection with All Souls’ Day reveals right away the emphasis on ghosts and things that go bump in the night. Ghosts are often connected with souls from Purgatory who cannot find rest. A church in Rome contains relics of visitors from Purgatory (these and other ghost-like visitations were the subject of a recent book, Hungry Souls: Supernatural Visits, Messages, and Warnings from Purgatory), emphasizing the need for prayers for the faithfully departed, especially those who have no one to pray for them. The accounts attached to those relics are real ghost stories. It is little wonder, then, that ghosts and other denizens of the night are associated with the two feast days of the Church which focus on the afterlife, not on the lives of heroic men and women but on what happens to us when we die.
This is from Matt’s blog Quidquid Est, Est!, which is sadly able to make me look like I update regularly. (Matt’s blog is an excellent example of “quality over quantity,” though, so I encourage you to check it out.) The essay in question is from two years ago: “Can Catholics Celebrate Halloween?” I’ll quote excerpts, but you should really read the whole thing.
Matt goes on to describe where we do get a lot of the traditions, and why Halloween is distinctly an American thing. He describes certain practices and which countries they come from, and then notes that they only came together when immigrants moved to the United States and started intermixing both their families and their traditions. The darker stuff, such as associations with Satanism or other anti-Christian behavior, only came about in recent decades.
Matt goes on to note that we should be worried about behavior, and the focus on Halloween and not the inherent connection with All Saints’ Day:
This leaves the biggest question of them all: can a Catholic celebrate Halloween? I would say yes, provided they avoid the more disturbing facets that have slithered into the holiday’s celebration in recent decades. The focus of the holiday turned from remembering the dead, praying for them, and invoking the saints, to a disturbing obsession with evil. This evil appears in various forms, and its not always as obvious as the evil in a horror movie. Many children (and those who wish they were children) dress in costumes for trick-or-treating. Those costumes speak volumes. A cute costume might draws “awwws” and “how sweet.” Gory costumes draw the opposite reaction. Girls dressed in overtly sexual costumes draw a very disturbing reaction. Costumes of children dressed as witches and zombies seem more appropriate. Mix this with attempts by modern witches and druids to claim Halloween as their holy day and the water gets murky. The Christian origins of the holiday fade into obscurity.
I should note that Matt and I differ on exactly how we approach Halloween. He describes four groups of Christians, categorized by their attitude toward the holiday. I belong to the third one, that celebrates it without much regard to the controversy. It’s a fun time, as long as you stay away from stuff you don’t like. (In my case, just as one example, I don’t like people dressing up as devils. I also don’t like people dressing up as angels, though that’s not nearly as disturbing to me. But seriously, people haven’t you noticed how every time an angel shows up in the Bible, they’re never described as cutesy? No, the universal reaction to meeting an angel for the first time, with the sole exception of Mary, is “Please don’t kill me!” Angels are scary, man. Respect the angels.)
Matt, on the other hand, belongs to the fourth group, which he describes as wanting to move to treating the Christian elements only, with kids dressing as saints, knights, animals, etc.
It’s interesting to note, though, that there isn’t a huge difference between the two of us. Matt’s a lot better at this “Catholic thing” than I am, but our main difference is that I don’t mind Halloween as a side-by-side thing with All Saints’ and All Souls’, and he thinks that it should all be part of the same thing. We’re both fine with celebrating it, and we both agree that the true dangers that a Catholic might face on Halloween are the same things that we run into every other day of the year.
Long story short: tomorrow is Halloween, and you should relax and enjoy it however you want.