Should Catholics Celebrate Halloween?

The Christian Origins of All Hallows Eve

Children enjoying treats on steps
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Every year, a debate rages among Catholics and other Christians: Is Halloween a satanic holiday or merely a secular one? Should Catholic children dress up like ghosts and goblins, vampires and demons? Is it good for children to be scared? Lost in this debate is the history of Halloween, which, far from being a pagan religious event or a satanic holiday, is actually a Christian celebration that's almost 1,300 years old.

The Christian Origins of Halloween

Halloween is a name that means nothing by itself. It is a contraction of "All Hallows Eve," and it designates the vigil of All Hallows Day, more commonly known today as All Saints Day. (Hallow, as a noun, is an old English word for saint. As a verb, hallow means to make something holy or to honor it as holy.) Both the feast of All Saints Day (November 1) and its vigil (October 31) have been celebrated since the early eighth century, when they were instituted by Pope Gregory III in Rome. A century later, the feast and its vigil were extended to the Church at large by Pope Gregory IV. Today, All Saints Day is a Holy Day of Obligation

Does Halloween Have Pagan Origins?

Despite concerns among some Catholics and other Christians in recent years about the "pagan origins" of Halloween, there really are none. While Christians who are opposed to the celebration of Halloween frequently claim that it descends from the Celtic harvest festival of Samhain, he first attempts to show some connection between the vigil of All Saints and Samhain came over a thousand years after All Saints Day was named a universal feast.

There's no evidence whatsoever that Gregory III or Gregory IV was even aware of Samhain. The pagan festival had died when the Celtic peoples had converted to Christianity hundreds of years before the Feast of All Saints was instituted.

In Celtic peasant culture, however, elements of the harvest festival—shorn of their pagan roots—survived, even among Christians, just as the Christmas tree owes its origins to pre-Christian Germanic traditions without being a pagan ritual.

Combining the Celtic and the Christian

The Celtic elements included lighting bonfires, carving turnips (and, in America, pumpkins), and going from house to house, collecting treats, as carolers do at Christmas. But the supposed "occult" aspects of Halloween—ghosts and demons—actually have their roots in Catholic belief. Christians believed that, at certain times of the year (Christmas is another), the veil separating earth from Purgatory, Heaven, and even Hell becomes more thin, and the souls in Purgatory (ghosts) and demons can be more readily seen. Thus the tradition of Halloween costumes owes as much, if not more, to Christian belief as to Celtic tradition.

The (First) Anti-Catholic Attack on Halloween

The current attacks on Halloween aren't the first. In post-Reformation England, All Saints Day and its vigil were suppressed, and the Celtic peasant customs associated with Halloween were outlawed. Christmas and the traditions surrounding it were similarly attacked, and the Puritan Parliament banned Christmas outright in 1647. In the Northeastern United States, Puritans outlawed the celebration of both Christmas and Halloween. The celebration of Christmas in the United States was revived largely by German Catholic immigrants in the 19th century; Irish Catholic immigrants brought with them the celebration of Halloween.

 

The Commercialization of Halloween

Continued opposition to Halloween in the late 19th century was largely an expression of anti-Catholicism and anti-Irish prejudice. But by the early 20th century, Halloween, like Christmas, was becoming highly commercialized. Pre-made costumes, decorations, and special candy all became widely available, and the Christian origins of the holiday were downplayed.

The rise of horror films, and especially the slasher films of the late 70's and 80's, contributed to Halloween's bad reputation, as did the claims of putative Satanists and Wiccans, who created a mythology in which Halloween had once been their festival, co-opted later by Christians.

The (Second) Anti-Catholic Attack on Halloween

A new backlash against Halloween by non-Catholic Christians began in the 1980's, in part because of claims that Halloween was the "Devil's Night"; in part because of urban legends about poisons and razor blades in Halloween candy; and in part because of an explicit opposition to Catholicism.

Jack Chick, a rabidly anti-Catholic fundamentalist who distributed Bible tracts in the form of small comic books, helped lead the charge. (For more on Chick's rabid anti-Catholicism and how it led to his attack on Halloween, see Halloween, Jack Chick, and Anti-Catholicism.)

By the late 1990's, many Catholic parents, unaware of the anti-Catholic origins of the attack on Halloween, had begun to question Halloween as well. Their concerns were elevated when, in 2009, an article from a British tabloid newspaper sparked an urban legend that Pope Benedict XVI had warned Catholics against celebrating Halloween. Even though there was no truth to the claim (see Did Pope Benedict XVI Condemn Halloween? for details), alternative celebrations became popular and remain so to this day.

Alternatives to Halloween Activities

Ironically, one of the most popular Christian alternatives to celebrating Halloween is a secular "Harvest Festival," which has more in common with the Celtic Samhain than it does with the Catholic All Saints Day. There's nothing wrong with celebrating the harvest, but there's no need to strip such a celebration of connections with the Christian liturgical calendar. (It would, for instance, be more appropriate to tie a celebration of the harvest to the fall Ember Days.)

Another popular Catholic alternative is an All Saints Party, usually held on Halloween and featuring costumes (of saints rather than ghouls) and candy. At best, though, this is an attempt to Christianize an already Christian holiday.

Safety Concerns and the Fear Factor

Parents are in the best position to decide whether their children can participate safely in Halloween activities, and, in today's world, it's understandable that many choose to err on the side of caution. Scattered stories of poisoned apples and tampering with candy, which arose during the mid-1980's, left a residue of fear, even though they had been thoroughly debunked by 2002. One concern that's often overblown, however, is the effect that fright might have on children.

Some children, of course, are very sensitive, but most love scaring others and being scared themselves (within limits, of course). Any parent knows that the "Boo!" is usually followed by laughter, not only from the child doing the scaring, but from the one being scared. Halloween provides a structured environment for fear.

Making Your Decision

In the end, the choice is yours to make as a parent. If you choose, as my wife and I do, to let your children participate in Halloween, simply stress the need for physical safety (including checking over their candy when they return home), and explain the Christian origins of Halloween to your children. Before you send them off trick-or-treating, recite together the Prayer to Saint Michael the Archangel, and explain that, as Catholics, we believe in the reality of evil. Tie the vigil explicitly to the Feast of All Saints, and explain to your children why we celebrate that feast, so that they won't view All Saints Day as "the boring day when we have to go to church before we can eat some more candy."

Let's reclaim Halloween for Christians, by returning to its roots in the Catholic Church!