Kristy, who writes at Granola Vogue, asked a question (and to emphasize just how BEHIND I am, I had joked with her that I hopefully wouldn’t be writing about it around Halloween. . . ) about everybody’s favorite candy-giving, creepy movie watching, totally spiritual holiday: “I read your latest post on Christmas [sorry to interrupt again, but this kinda shows just how old this question was] so I was wondering where does the Catholic Church stand on celebrating Halloween? Where does it fit it, if at all into their beliefs?”
A fine question, Kristy. Let’s look at the history of Halloween first, compare its historical celebrations to today’s, and see what Catholics say about it.
Halloween got its start as a religious feast. It is the day before All Saints’ Day, one of the holiest feasts of the year, when the Catholic Church celebrates all of the saints in Heaven, especially those who have not been declared a saint by the Church (remember, the Catholic Church doesn’t make someone a saint; she declares that that person is a saint). The word “Halloween” is adapted from its proper, liturgical title: “All Hallows’ Eve.” “Hallows” is an older English word that we still use in some contexts (for example, in the “Our Father” we say in the first line “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name”). The word “hallow” means “holy,” and thus “All Hallows’ Eve” celebrates the eve (evening) before the feast of All Saints (the holy ones of God). The words combine to make Halloween.
The feast of All Saints’ Day wasn’t established in the Church calenders until 615, when Pope Boniface IV established the Feast of All Martyrs to commemorate the conversion of the Pantheon in Rome into the Church of “St. Mary of the Martyrs” (“Santa Maria dei Martiri”). There had been earlier celebrations commemorating the Church’s martyrs, but this was the first time it was made official by the Pope (it was celebrated on May 13). This feast was later turned into the Feast of All Saints by Pope Gregory IV in 840 and moved to November 1 in 844 by that same pontiff. Several commentators note that the establishment of both the feast in honor of All Martyrs and the feast in honor of All Saints marked an attempt to turn a sometimes pagan Europe towards God, baptizing the day in honor of the saints, rather than towards pagan gods. To highlight the importance of the feast, Pope Sixtus IV made the feast a holy day of obligation in 1484, meaning all Catholics were to attend Mass that day. Pope Sixtus also established a vigil feast for this major feast day (what is now called Halloween) as well as an octave to extend the feast’s celebration. However, the octave and the liturgies attached to the eve of All Saints were removed before the mid-1950s.
(Above: Raphael’s “The Disputation of the Sacrament,” aka, What they do in Heaven)
All Souls’ Day (November 2) has a much shorter history. Since the beginning of the Church (and before, as noted in 2 Maccabees 12:38-46), the faithful have offered prayers for the dead, so that they might be freed from the stain of sin and brought into paradise. The feast of All Souls’ Day grew out of this practice, first in local monasteries as a way to pray for those monks and loved ones who had died (particularly from the 6th through 11th Centuries), then in the major cities (Liege by 1008, Milan by 1125), and eventually to the whole world. Pope Sylvester II recommended the feast for the Universal Church (but did not require the feast be added to the universal Church calender) in the 11th century, and as is often the case in matters liturgical, once the feast gained the support of the Pope, it spread throughout Europe. It wasn’t until very recently (1915, under Pope Benedict XV), however, that the feast became an official one on the universal Church calendar (and a special exemption from the two-Masses-per-day rule was given to priests).
(Above: What happens during a Requiem Mass)
So that’s a quick summary of the history behind All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days and the creation of Halloween as a liturgical celebration. Halloween is, as you can see, at its roots a Catholic celebration: remembering the saints who dwell with God in Heaven and the departed who left this world in need of our prayers. In that way, it is very Catholic to celebrate Halloween.
But what about Halloween today? Where did we get all the holiday stuff, the ghosts, the monsters, the jack-o-lanterns, etc.? Is the Church ok with all of that?
First, the party stuff.
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.
Many of the familiar Halloween features stem from pagan European practices. The most commonly noted is a festival in Celtic areas (Ireland, England, Scotland, etc.) prior to the arrival of Christian missionaries dedicated to Samhain, their god of death. This feast marked the Celtic New Year. Rituals included offering burnt sacrifices in huge bonfires and wearing animal skins as costumes. The hope was that these would keep the god at bay, as well as protect the people of the villages from the evil spirits released into the world by Samhain. From these Celtic areas, we also find familiar rituals which may be the ancestors of our Halloween celebrations. In Ireland people joined a parade led by a druidic priest in an animal mask who went from house to house begging for food in the name of another god, Muck Olla (those who would give food were blessed, while those who didn’t were cursed). The Irish also started carving turnips for the feast. Scottish peasants wandered the fields at night with torches to keep evil spirits at bay. When Roman legions conquered the Celtic regions, their Latin customs of autumnal harvest rituals mixed with the Celtic festival. Christian missionaries attempted to baptize the festivities (as they did with festivals near Christmastime), resulting in a strong emphasis in Celtic Christianity on death and physical mortification.
Similar rituals arose in Frankish and Germanic Christian kingdoms. French Catholics in particular had a festival known as “Dance Macabre” in honor of departed souls, often dressing in costumes to represent people throughout their life. French monks in the monasteries in Cluny developed devotions in honor of the souls in Purgatory, offering special Masses for the dead (the Masses of the Clunaic monks inspired Pope Sylvester II, who himself was French, to spread the celebration of Mass for the Dead). These rites and rituals became popular among the lay faithful, and soon became part of Christian culture.
Our modern understanding of Halloween came about when all of these features mixed together in America, the world’s cultural melting pot. French, Irish, Scottish, and German immigrants lived near each other, intermarried, and formed a new culture. The Irish tradition of carving turnips and asking for food became our tradition of carving pumpkins and trick-or-treating. The French devotion to prayers for the souls in Purgatory and their costume-filled “Dance Macabre” mixed with Celtic fears of ghosts and goblins. Other cultures mixed and mingled, and eventually our modern holiday of Halloween formed.
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.
Christians are divided into four groups regarding Halloween. One group just doesn’t celebrate it, not out of any dislike but simply because they don’t want to. Another wants nothing to do with it, some because of its connection to pre-Christian Europe, some because of how disturbing some of the celebrations of Halloween have become. A third group, on the other end of the spectrum, celebrates the holiday like anyone else, without any concern over the controversies mentioned above. The fourth group, which I lean towards, seeks to embrace what is properly Christian, reclaiming, so to speak, Halloween. Rather than wandering the streets dressed as monsters, children trick-or-treat dressed as saints or religious figures. Others dress in some heroic costume (knights, soldiers, policemen, etc). Other costumes work too (I was a shark when I was very young!) and there is room for some monstrosities, gentle ghosts and lovable witches. However, it is not my place to say in definite terms “this is wrong” or “the parent who allows this or that costume is a bad, sinful parent.” These, of course, are mere suggestions.
There is a place for terror during Halloween, for it reminds us of the end of our lives. Halloween brings to our attention a terrifying reality: we will all die. Even those who emphasize the spiritual aspect of the holiday know that this reality is at the root of the celebration. The saints, though heroic and in Heaven, had to die to reach their triumphant state. The souls in Purgatory likewise had to die to reach their state of purification. Those in Hell suffer the worst fate, for in their death they have separated themselves from God. It is of this reality that Halloween seeks to remind us. Horror has its place in reminding us. Perhaps it is the easiest way to shock us into drawing back to God.
No matter the costume or the celebration, this main focus of Halloween should be maintained. We should recall those who have gone before us, either celebrating in the triumph of the saints or pray for those who still journey through Purgatory. Some suggested practices help refocus our attention during the holiday. Reflections on the saints form a delightful part of the celebration. Readings from the lives of the saints or their writings might help to remind Christians young and old of the great patrimony of our spiritual siblings in Heaven. In this way, a new generation of Christians can reorient themselves towards Christ through His saints.
For Further Reading (note: most of these websites are articles discussing the history of Halloween in more detail):
http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01315a.htm – Catholic Encyclopedia article about All Saints’ Day
http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01315b.htm – Catholic Encyclopedia article about All Souls’ Day
Van Den Aardweg, Gerard J. M. Hungry Souls: Supernatural Visits, Messages, and Warnings from Purgatory. Rockville, IL: TAN Books, 2009.