How should we as Catholics and Christians respond to Halloween? In recent decades there seems to have been the emergence of two camps. One sees Halloween is generally harmless fun. The other sees Halloween as a dangerous dalliance with the occult, the demonic and evil. While it is true that there are some excesses evident in current Halloween celebrations, I would largely find myself in the “harmless fun” category especially if we allow Halloween to be a Teachable moment from the Christian perspective.
Part of the reason that I see it as harmless fun is rooted in my experience. Back when I was a kid in the 1960s and early 1970s we would often dress in ghoulish costumes and attempt to look as frightening as possible. One year I went about as a skeleton. My grandfather, who was a doctor had an plastic skeleton of a hand that was very realistic. I would hold it in my hand and pull my shirt over my real hand. It was so real looking that people often wondered if my hand was horribly injured for real. Another year I was a zombie. Another year a ruthless pirate. There were a few years where I dressed more mildly as an astronaut and a Navy officer. But it was all good fun. Even in the ghoulish years it never occurred to me that the “dark side” was attractive or that devil worship was in my future.
In a way, what was more evident to me was that we were mocking evil, death and the occult. All this dressing up stuff was not in admiration of bad stuff it was about being goofy and making all the devilish stuff seem silly.
There are surely some concerns today about Halloween. One is that it has gone too far. Some adult costumes at adult parties in Georgetown and other places are downright immoral. Let’s be clear that this is wrong and is excluded from the more benign posture I am suggesting here. It is also true that there are some who take all this evil stuff seriously. There probably is a rise in Satanism today but I can guarantee there is a lot more than Halloween at work there. But for the vast majority of kids and young people I think it is still safe to conclude that Halloween is just good fun like it always has been.
As Christians we might help by putting a bit of perspective on the day. It is a sort of teaching moment for us all. Here are a few teaching moments we might ponder.
- The word “Halloween” is derived from Catholic tradition. All Saints Day which occurs the next day (Nov 1) was called in older English “All Hallows Day” The evening before was called the “een of All Hallows.” It was eventually shortened to Halloween. The Church put the feast of All Saints in place to answer a pagan custom that feared that the dead walked the earth on the last day of October. The Church’s answer was that the dead were not all ghouls and zombies. Among the dead were also the saints who were glorious and holy. And although the scary traditions continued the Church largely succeeded in pushing back the fears about the dead. Now the celebrations on All Hallows Eve were more about fun than fear.
- Scripturally we might highlight a couple of texts that point to our truest attitudes about death and demonic realities. As regards death, we ought not fear it for Scripture says, Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:54-56). So, in a certain sense we mock death and dismiss its power to trouble us. The graveyards, corpses, blood, skeletons, and coffins of Halloween allow us, on a yearly basis, to confront our mortality and confront our often repressed fear of death and Christ victory actually gives us a basis to do this.
- Regarding the evil spirits and demons another scripture comes to mind, And having disarmed the powers and principalities [of evil], Christ made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. (Col 2:15) And so again it is possible for us to see all the Halloween display of the evil and demonic not as a celebration but a mockery. Like Christ and because of his triumph we can make a spectacle of them. And here too we confront some of our natural fears about evil and things related to it: monsters, bats, owls, ghosts and goblins. The world can be a scary place, strange and mysterious place, and we tend to fill its dark corners with “monsters.” Halloween, allows us (especially children) to roam a night filled with frightening things but in fact to find only friends and neighbors and candy! Again, vague fears are collectively confronted and processed and we can additionally find courage in the fact that Christ has conquered.
I know what I have said may be controversial to some of you. But I might humbly suggest that trying to suppress a strong cultural tradition by “demonizing it” (pardon the pun) usually backfires and only makes it more appealing to those who love to tweak us with their extremes. Maybe a better strategy is to emphasize a more benign and scriptural interpretation and to claim what is truly ours as Christians on the strange little night we call Halloween.