Not long ago, a friend and I were talking about children and holidays. "What am I going to do about Hallowe'en?" she asked. "My kids love planning costumes, figuring out jokes and riddles for trick-or-treating, and then there's the big night when dozens of neighbor children come to our door for handouts. But now I wonder if it's right for Christians to let our kids participate in pagan holidays like this at all."
Her concern was real — and considering some of the adult Hallowe'en street celebrations in recent years, anyone would think this is a deeply pagan festivity. (The same might be said of Mardi Gras celebrations!) Add to that the fact that some people today actually claim to be witches. They have claimed "ownership" of Hallowe'en. They claim it is really an ancient pagan harvest festival.
What about this? Can even innocent children's parties, trick-or-treating, dressing up like witches and ghosts on October 31 — as almost all Americans have done for generations — be participating in a pagan religious celebration? Worse, is it a way of seducing our kids into the occult or devil worship?
Are we compromising our religious beliefs and principles by letting our children, even if innocently, dabble in something that has its origins in evil? As Catholic families, what is our obligation to be consistent and true to our faith?
We think that Hallowe'en can be a real teaching moment. Despite what many people think — or what some modern-day "witches" may claim — Hallowe'en is and has always been a Christian holiday.
The word Hallowe'en itself is a contraction of "Hallowed evening". Hallowed is an old English word for "holy" — as in "Hallowed be Thy Name", in the Lord's Prayer.
Why is this evening "hallowed"? Because is is the eve of the Feast of All Saints — which used to be called All Hallows. Like Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve, and the Easter Vigil, the Church's celebration of her greatest feasts begins the evening before. (This follows the ancient Jewish practice of beginning the celebration of the Sabbath at sundown on Friday evening.)
We need to begin to re-Christianize or re-Catholicize Hallowe'en by repairing the broken link to its Christian meaning and significance. We need to reattach it to All Saints Day — and to All Souls Day, for it is only in relation to this that we can understand the original and true significance of the "hallowed eve".
The Communion of Saints
The Church's belief in the Communion of Saints is a key to unlocking the real mystery of Hallowe'en and to restoring its connection to the Church's celebration of All Saints and commemoration of All Souls.
The Communion of Saints is really a definition of the Church: the unity in faith in Christ of all believers, past, present and future, in heaven and on the earth. We are united as one body in Christ by holy things, especially the Eucharist, which both represents the Mystical Body of Christ and brings it about. (See the Catechism of the Catholic Church §960)
The Communion of Saints also means the communion in Christ of holy persons (saints) — "so that what each one does or suffers in and for Christ bears fruit for all". (CCC §961)
So, as Pope Paul VI put it, "We believe in the communion of all the faithful of Christ, those who are pilgrims on earth, the dead who are being purified, and the blessed in heaven, all together forming one Church".
Furthermore, "we believe that in this communion, the merciful love of God and His saints is always [attentive] to our prayers". (CCC §962)
This is why Catholics honor the saints and "pray to the saints". (Actually, what we are doing is are asking them to pray for us -- to add their prayers to ours, just as we might ask a friend to pray for us. This is known as "intercessory prayer".)
It is because of our belief in the communion of all the faithful in Christ — in this world or in the next — that Catholics pray for the dead, for all those those have died and who are being purified (in Purgatory), that they will soon be granted eternal rest in heaven with God and reunited with all the saints.
A reminder of "Last Things"
It's odd, isn't it, that Hallowe'en is such a big deal in our secularized society in America today? In the pre-Modern world the threat of impending death from plagues and wars, as well as uncontrollable disease, loomed large in people's daily lives. Death could not be ignored. Themes of the Last Judgment, Heaven, Hell were on people's minds, and the art of the period illustrates this. Consciousness of personal sin, repentance, confession and penance and the Church's role in forgiveness of sins influenced the spiritual life and devotion of most Catholics.
The omnipresent reality of death, almost daily experience of it, and people's authentic religious beliefs about it, along with ignorance and superstition and folk legend, led to an attitude toward death that often seems primitive, bizarre and alien to us, now.
Paradoxically, though, in our contemporary world — justly called a "Culture of Death" — people often seem to be "in denial" about death. As a culture, we avoid not only avoid coming to grips with personal sin and the consequences of evil, but we deny the spiritual value of the suffering and pain associated with dying, which are a part of the human condition.
Even Christian funeral customs have changed markedly in the past few decades. Although the Church strictly forbids eulogies at funeral Masses, there has been a recent tendency to "canonize" the person who dies — to assume that the person is instantly in heaven. This emphasis on joy and eternal bliss, and the denial of the sorrow, loss and suffering death causes, may reflect the widespread denial sin and of hell, which is the eternal consequence of unrepented sins. (This mistaken idea of "instant heaven" among Catholics also deprives the "faithful departed" of needed prayers for purification.)
Could this denial of belief so common in our "culture of death" account for why Hallowe'en has become an occasion for flaunting our lack of belief in the power of evil, Satan and his power in this world? Do we attempt to tame death and hell by erasing all trace of the original connection of the Eve of All Hallows to the solemn feast of All Saints and the commemmoration of the dead on All Souls day?
We can see how such attitudes actually destroy belief in the Church as the Communion of Saints — past, present and future. The rejection of Christianity also underlies the self-conscious invention of new "pagan" observances, such as "wicca" and some New Age pseudo-religions.
Hallowe'en is distinctively Christian — and specifically a Catholic holiday — so we Catholics should restore the original meaning of this feast and season of the Church's year.
Celebration in the Domestic Church
As Catholics — and as parents — our job is to make clear the real meaning of the Hallowed Evening and its link to the Communion of Saints to our families and our communities. Celebrating Hallowe'en in the "domestic Church" can help restore the link with All Saints and All Souls. Hallowe'en, like Valentine's Day, and even Christmas, is a big commercial "holiday". But if the original religious significance of these celebrations is restored, this could have a beneficial effect on the religious formation of youngsters.
Hallowe'en is chiefly celebrated in America, and principally as a children's festival. As with many holidays (holy days), pagan elements have been part of the tradition most of us associate with Hallowe'en. In a culture that has lost its Christian moorings, there is a serious risk that the "paganizing" of holy days will lead to further loss of belief.
Consciously anti-Christian Hallowe'en celebrations in recent years have led many Christian families to believe that participation in any Hallowe'en festivity — even kids trick-or-treating and dressing up in costumes — should be avoided.
But our task, as laity — as Catholics — is to evangelize our culture. In this case, we might say "re-evangelize", because, as we have seen, Hallowe'en is really a completely Christian festival.
There is something nostalgic and cheerful about our memories of celebrating Hallowe'en — even if our celebration was completely disconnected from the real holy day that inspired it. The same could be said of Mardi Gras, which is now detached from the authentic observence of Lent; and even jolly Santa Claus, who bears no resemblance to the Middle-Eastern bishop, Saint Nicholas, and adds nothing to the real meaning of Christmas. Saint Valentine's Day and Saint Patrick's Day celebrations have also become almost entirely secular and commercialized.
Do we want to abolish all these secular holiday customs? No, we don't. They are truly a part of our culture. But as Catholics, we should see in these celebrations an opportunity "inculturate" the vestiges of truth in the customs, and to integrate these customs with some fresh ways to instill the real meaning of the holiday.
Understanding our customs and traditions
Trick-or-Treating on Hallowe'en — like Santa Claus and his "eight tiny reindeer", is fun — and an authentic part of our own culture. The naughty and destructive tricks once associated with Hallowe'en seem mostly to have disappeared.
What about children dressing as devils and witches and ghosts?
We think dressing children to look like devils or demons is not a good idea. Is it harmful? Probably not. But at the very least it tends to reduce evil to something cute or fun, and this is certainly off-base. Talking with kids about choosing Hallowe'en costumes can give Christian parents an opportunity to make it clear that there is a real personal Devil, and he is truly evil — something people nowadays are inclined to forget.
Until very recently, witches seemed entirely fanciful — like fairies or leprechauns. Witches were comically wicked, like the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, or Samantha on the old TV series Bewitched. Now, however, some very misguided people actually claim to be witches, and they practice fabricated religions based on magic and the occult. Some even claim to worship Satan. This is not funny. It is seriously wrong and it changes the picture considerably. Again, this can be a teaching moment when we talk with our children about this.
Jack-o'-lanterns are different. Although the big orange pumpkins with glowing scary faces are uniquely American, this is our remake of an old Irish custom, based on a folk tale about a man who was so miserly that, after he died, his ghost had to walk about at night with a lantern made from a hollowed-out turnip, in order to make amends for his sins by warning the living to repent. As the story goes, people later began to carve the miser's ghostly features in the turnips as a reminder of his message.
(This tale of the repentant miser's ghost reminds me a bit of Scrooge's ghostly partner, Jacob Marley, in Dickens's A Christmas Carol, who had to drag heavy chains forged in life by his sins. Remember? Marley's ghost visited Scrooge in order to scare him into changing his sinful ways before it was too late.)
But the story of the miserly Irishman and his penance was lost over time, and Jack-o'-lanterns grin fiercely from our American pumpkins, not turnips. This custom has become a memorable part of American childhood.
Picking out the pumpkins can be an excuse for arranging a nice family outing in the fall. And carving them is an activity that can involve almost all members of the family.
While we're helping small children carve the pumpkin, we might tell them the Jack-o'-lantern legend — and we can even relate it to authentic Catholic teaching about Purgatory and the need for every soul's purification from the effects of sin before entering Heaven.
Symbolism of Hallowe'en colors
Did you ever wonder why the traditional colors of Hallowe'en are black and orange?
Orange is the color the color of ripe pumpkins, falling leaves and glowing sunsets and candlelight. The color represents harvest and autumn, the pleasant warmth of bonfires and blazing hearths, and the harvest moon of the year's waning days. As days are growing shorter and colder, and the creatures of the earth prepare for winter, we, too, are reminded of the "last things" of life.
But perhaps the main reason that this color came to be associated with with death and mourning – thus to Hallowe’en and All Soul’s – is related to the dusky yellowish-orange color of the unbleached beeswax candles used at Requiem Masses (also during Holy Week, especially on Good Friday). These dark “mourning” candles contrast sharply with the much whiter candles made of refined and purified beeswax that are used at Easter and other feasts. At funeral Masses, four to six tall lighted unbleached wax candles were always placed around the catafalque holding the casket covered by a black pall.
Black is the traditional color of mourning in the West. Black signifies sins, evil (as in "black-hearted"), the occult or hidden (as in "black magic"). Many people may think this nearly universal association of darkness with evil comes only from the irrational childish fear of the dark, of the unseen. But there is more to it than that. Jesus is the Sun of Righteousness; the Light of the World. Black — the absence of light — is the opposite of this Light of Christ. For this Light penetrates and overcomes spiritual darkness, ignorance, sin. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, "The people that walked in darkness have seen a great Light. And they that walked in the valley of the shadow of death, upon them hath a light shined.” (Isaiah 9:2)
Throughout most of Christian history, black was always the liturgical color used for funerals, for requiem Masses, Mass on All Souls and on Good Friday – along with the dark yellow wax “mourning” candles. Although since the Second Vatican Council, priests now often wear white vestments at funeral Masses, to symbolize the Resurrection, black vestments are still proper for funerals and for All Souls Masses. (Violet is also approved for funerals, and red for Good Friday.)
Suggestions for family celebration - Costumes - Parties - Games
- Help kids create Hallowe'en costumes drawn from Church history -- saints of the past, who are examples (witness/martyr) for Christian life. The children might choose their own name-saint.
- Get together with other families (perhaps in your childrens' school) and have a pageant of saints. This could be as simple as a procession, where the children tell about the saints portrayed by the costumes they are wearing. It could also be more elaborately organized, with props and children acting out the saints' lives -- either with spoken parts or a narration. (Obviously, this idea needs active adult planning and organizing.) This pageant could be held in the early evening, so that children could go trick-or-treating afterwards.
- Have an All Hallow's Eve party with several families. Begin with the children's "saints procession" with parents and grandparents as the audience.
- Play classic parlor games together. Some examples: Charades, Twenty Questions, The Minister's Cat, Musical Chairs, Blind Man's Bluff. If you don't remember these games, ask your parents or grandparents! In the days before television, many families entertained themselves by playing games involving the entire family -- from the toddler to the great-grandma.
- Other family activities for Hallowe'en parties could be making taffy or fudge or popcorn balls or candy apples. Messy but memorable!
- When making decorations or invitations for Hallowe'en parties, have the children help. Instead of black cats and bats, or cute little witches and ghosts, you might consider gluing real autumn leaves to a black or orange construction paper card, cut to fit ordinary envelopes.
Stickers of autumn leaves or pumpkins or scarecrows also fit the autumn/harvest season.
And remember -- this is the Vigil of a solemn feast of the Church. So the inside of your party invitation could say something like "To celebrate the Vigil of All Saints Day, we invite you to join us for a Hallowe'en party on ------", etc.
- While you're making black and orange decorations with crepe paper streamers, or blowing up black and orange balloons, you can explain what the colors signify.
- Refreshments can be very simple. Apple cider or cocoa with marshmallows would be good with bowls of popcorn. Children like to help frost cupcakes and cookies. Black and orange candy sprinkles on either chocolate or orange frosting are effective and fun. Use chocolate chips or raisins to make Jack-o'-lantern faces on cookies (before baking) or on the orange icing on cupcakes.
- For party favors, get an assortment of holy cards representing the patron saints of each guest. You could fasten the cards to ribbons for guests to wear around their necks.
- At the end of the party, just before the guests leave, assemble everyone to say together the Prayer to Saint Michael, composed by Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) after he had a vision of terrible evils to come in the twentieth century.
Saint Michael, Archangel, defend us in battle;
Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray;
And do thou, O prince of the heavenly host,
by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan
and all the other evil spirits who prowl about the world
seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.
Follow this prayer with the traditional invocation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus:
Most Sacred Heart of Jesus: Have mercy on us.
Most Sacred Heart of Jesus: Have mercy on us.
Most Sacred Heart of Jesus: Have mercy on us.
+ In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.