October 26, 2010

Should We Fear Halloween?

By Rebecca Ryskind Teti *
Do Christians have any business celebrating Halloween?

The perennial debate between those who see trick-or-treat night as harmless fun and others who fear it’s a pinch of incense on the altar of a pagan festival never seems to get resolved.

I have no hope of resolving the matter here either --  only a modest proposal that we respect each other’s good faith judgments.

Some years ago Fr. Augustine Thompson, O.P. laid out a pretty convincing case that in spite of what we may have been told, Halloween never was a pagan holiday. It’s true the ancient Celts had a minor holiday on October 31st, but they had a minor holiday on the last day of every month.

There was nothing special about the last evening of October –certainly no widespread pagan or cultic observance- until Pope Gregory III moved All Saints Day to November 1st – which made the previous evening a vigil feast: All Hallow’s Eve.

The macabre costumes we associate with Halloween don’t come from the ancient Celts at all, but from France, where the observance of All Souls day began as a practice of the monastery at Cluny and eventually spread to the rest of the Church.  The French observed the day with special masses and costumes.

Sometime during the late Medieval period, when survivors of the numerous outbreaks of the plague became fascinated by their own mortality and often portrayed ghostly skeletons in the “danse macabre,” the costumes began to reflect that interest.

Fr. Thompson takes the charming view that “Halloween” as we know it is uniquely American. He thinks it came about as a result of the mingling of the French Catholic observance of All Souls Day (from which we get the costumes and the ghosts and skeletons) and the English Protestant observance of Guy Fawkes’ day (from which trick-or- treating comes).

So one line of reasoning goes: Halloween is not pagan or satanic in origin, it’s just good fun, and an opportunity to bond with friends and neighbors.

Some parents, though, see a confluence of Satanists, neo-pagans, atheists and aggressive secularists adopting Halloween as their own and prefer not to expose their kids to it. They prefer to prioritize All Saints Day, and have their kids dress up as saints rather than other kinds of costumes.

Who’s right?

For that I think St. Paul provides the answer in Romans 14.

Writing about differences that crept up in the early Church about all kinds of minor observances, Paul doesn’t attempt to resolve them; he urges instead a great deal of respect for other people’s decisions:

“Let not him who eats despise him who abstains, and let not him who abstains pass judgment on him who eats; for God has welcomed him.  Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls.”

In other words, St. Paul says, on contingent matters, what’s important is not that your neighbor agrees with you, but that your own conscience is clear before God.  If for whatever reason someone thinks a certain practice will harm his Christian walk, respect that.  Conversely, don’t assume that what you think will harm you has the same affect on everyone.

Paul even addresses the question of how we observe feasts directly:

“One man esteems one day as better than another, while another man esteems all days alike. Let every one be fully convinced in his own mind.”

Again, for Paul the question is to be responding to Christ’s will for you personally rather than doing what everyone else does.

There is an expression often attributed to St. Augustine that applies. “In needful things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity.”

The needful thing for Catholics is that we honor God in our celebrations next week.  That means particularly the observance of All Saints Day and the prayers for the dead during the octave of All Souls.

Whether we observe Halloween or not is up to us!
Rebecca Ryskind Teti is Operations Coordinator for the Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship at the Busch School of Business & Economics at CUA, though the opinions are her own. This column is modified from an earlier version that first appeared in Faith & Family  magazine.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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