In the past several decades, many Christian holidays have become increasingly secularized. Sadly, for many American families, Christmas Day is often more about gifts of material goods rather than reflections on the spiritual Gift of God-made-man lying in a manger 2000 years ago. Easter has been overrun by bunnies and baskets of jelly beans; Saint Patrick’s Day is for the leprechauns; and poor St. Valentine peddles women’s lingerie.
To some degree, even Christians get caught up in the hypnotic glow of lights and lawn ornaments, or green beer, or lavish parades and all the other trappings of the secular calendar. Christians are caught between two worlds. Especially as parents, we realize that when Christian holidays become secularized it leaves us straddling the proverbial fence. On the one hand there is the real need to recognize (and FIGHT for) the true religious nature of the holidays; on the other hand, we do not live in a vacuum. We and our children are exposed daily to the culture that surrounds us. We cannot completely shut it out of our lives. My home is not a monastery and my children are not cloistered religious. We must live in this world, even though we are called to an otherworldly purpose.
Many Christians have realized this dilemma and have begun “taking back” these religious holidays. If we must live in the culture, we will do our best to shape the culture in a Christian mold.
And so we come to Halloween…
As the word Hallow-e’en denotes, this holiday is the “eve of all hallows” – which is the evening before the Feast of All Saints. The word hallowed means “blessed” or “holy;” as in “hallowed be thy name,” which we say in the Lord’s Prayer. On Halloween the “holy” ones are the saints. (The word “saint” comes from the Latin “sanctus” which also mean “holy.”) On November 1 we celebrate the lives of all the Saints who have come before us in the faith. So the evening of October 31 marks the vigil of All Saints Day (All Hallows Eve), just as December 24 marks the vigil of Christmas (Christmas Eve).
But the holiness of this night has been neglected, ignored for so long that some Christians complain (and rightly so) that Halloween seems more pagan that Christian…and even downright Satanic. Some Christians do still send their children out trick-or-treating but others reject Halloween as a work of the devil. They point to the ancient pagan practices that resemble Halloween and draw the obvious parallels. They sometimes acknowledge the “Catholic connection” to All Saints Day, but they use that as yet another weapon in their arsenal to attack the Catholic Church as being demon-inspired and un-Christian. The Church promotes devil-worship, so they say.
The truth is that the Catholic Church does not teach that children should dress up as ghosts and goblins on the evening before All Saints Day and go door-to-door begging for candy. For that matter, the Church also does not teach that we should tell our kids about a man named Santa Claus who puts presents under a tree at Christmastime. These are both examples of secular and, to some extent, pagan cultural practices that have found their way into our own observance of the holidays. Examples of this extend into almost every facet of our lives. For instance, the throwing of rice at weddings stems from the pagan belief that this promotes fertility.
So what is a faithful Christian (Catholic) to do? Should we reject Halloween as a tool of the devil - a part of our pagan past that should be abandoned?
The problem is, if we were to eliminate all of our cultural traditions that are rooted in paganism, or that have some origin in pre-Christian thought, we would strip our culture of many time-honored institutions and perhaps find ourselves without a culture at all. Since New Testament times, Christianity has not destroyed pagan culture, but rather kept what was good in paganism by adding clarity and shedding more light on these beliefs, (giving them a Christian spin), while eliminating only the erroneous and evil beliefs and practices that accompany pagan insights. In a sense we “baptize” pagan philosophy and practices.
This is a Biblically sound principle. Paul did not uniformly denounce pagan ideals when preaching to the Gentiles. Upon entering Athens he said to the people gathered there: "Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, 'TO AN UNKNOWN GOD ' Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you…” (Acts 17:22-23) In this way Paul intertwined the pagan belief in an unknown, unseen god with the God of Christianity and Judaism. While paganism is not the true path to God, Paul recognized that the seed of truth can be found even among false religions.
The lesson in all of this is clear: It is not necessary to destroy or annihilate all the beliefs and practices found in non-Christian cultural traditions. We must give new meaning to their ideas, highlight the strengths, and eliminate the weaknesses and fallacies.
Halloween is in need of a re-cleansing. It has been neglected and almost abandoned, and a modern neo-paganism has shaped it into something un-Christian. If we are to “take back” Halloween (as we are trying to “take back” Christmas or Easter) we Catholics must bring to the culture our appreciation for the Communion of Saints and the honor that we show to the dead – which is what Halloween is supposed to be about. Unfortunately Halloween has fallen victim to the macabre, grotesque, and even Satanic influence of the pop culture. But as members of a counter-movement within that culture we can push back; we can reclaim our holy night.
This year my family has begun to do this in several ways. We carved a cross (rather than a traditional face) into the large pumpkin sitting on our front porch. As we emptied the contents of the pumpkin we explained to our children that God must also cleanse us on the inside to make us into Christians. As we carved the cross, we explained that we are all marked with the sign of the cross, and the light of Christ glows within. Leading up to the holiday, we have been studying different saints, and we will focus especially on each of our patron saints, our namesakes, on the Feast of All Saints. It’s important to include November 1 in the Halloween celebration since that is the true Feast Day on the Church calendar; and also All Souls Day (celebrating all of our deceased) on November 2. Other ideas include dressing as a favorite saint or Biblical figure rather than a commercial character or a phantom, spirit, witch or ghoul. (Although this year our kids prefer superheroes and princesses.)
It is not necessary to abandon Halloween traditions like carving pumpkins and trick-or-treating. Nor should we throw up our hands and let the secular culture take this holiday away from us so that they can transform it into a grotesque mutation of the “hallowed” celebration it ought to be. Rather, we should focus our time and energy on reclaiming the Eve of All Saints and use it to shape the culture in which we live. We can then say, as Paul might: “I see you have set aside a night on which you commemorate the dead. Therefore, what you celebrate in ignorance, this I proclaim to you…”