Every year on Halloween night, one of my neighbors puts a sign in her window: “NO CANDY. We are Christians. We do not celebrate Halloween.” So far none of my kids has remarked on this sign that I can recall. In particular, they have never asked, “But aren’t we Christians? . . . Is it wrong to trick-or-treat?” I’m glad. But I admit this neighbor’s sign has left me feeling slightly guilty every year, as if I should slink away with my jacket over head.
I know that many of us Catholic parents are torn about Halloween. Should we participate? Is Halloween intrinsically evil? What’s with the ghosts and witches? Where does all this stuff come from? Frankly, throughout my mothering, I’ve experienced very mixed feelings about Halloween. I love the harvest atmosphere of many Halloween parties and events, but the whole sub-culture around Halloween seems to become increasingly dark each year. A few years ago I want into a Halloween costume shop to get my daughter a Wizard of Oz Dorothy costume, and I saw mechanical zombie babies with blood oozing from their eyes. Not funny or interesting; just creepy and disturbing. Young people are becoming increasingly drawn to anything related to the “undead” – zombies, vampires, etc. It’s weird.
Yet, every year, I am at this place again where my kids are excited about Halloween, and the draw me into their wonder. They begin planning and talking about their Halloween costumes in early September, sometimes earlier. They even plan costumes for our dog and take her out trick or treating. There is nothing scary or disturbing about a Labradoodle in a bumble bee costume! (At least not to humans . . . other Labradoodles probably think it’s pretty scary.)
I love it that my children bring all their creative energy to their costumes. This year, my thirteen-year-old daughter Claire is make a German Shepherd costume (out of several yards of very fluffy fake fur that seems to be wafting through my house). Last year, my oldest son Aidan (now eighteen) went as “a knight who says NI” from Monty Python’s Holy Grail. He spent a great deal of time putting his costume together from bits and pieces he found at our local craft store. He walks around with us on Halloween night, never assuming he will get candy because he’s a little old, but last year a homeowner asked him what his costume was. When Aidan told him, the homeowner’s face lit up with hope, and he said, “You’re a teenager who likes the Holy Grail? Here, take it all” and he gave Aidan his entire bucket of candy!
Five years ago or so, I nearly eliminated Halloween from our home. I have Catholic friends who, like my neighbor, believe it’s evil and to be avoided entirely. But I just couldn’t cancel Halloween, though. If I had done so, I would have missed many wonderful family memories.
So, yes, my family “celebrates” Halloween. I’m sorry my neighbor shuts her blinds and doesn’t want to say hello to my children on October 31. I wish that she knew that, in fact, Halloween has its roots in Christianity. That’s right. Contrary to the popular belief that Halloween is rooted in paganism, it’s historically quite simply the vigil of All Saints Day, or “All Hallows Eve.” Here is a superb explanation by Scott Richert:
Pagan Origins of Halloween
Despite concerns among some Catholics and other Christians in recent years about the “pagan origins” of Halloween, there really are none. The first attempts to show some connection between the vigil of All Saints and the Celtic harvest festival of Samhain came over a thousand years after All Saints Day became a universal feast, and there’s no evidence whatsoever that Gregory III or Gregory IV was even aware of Samhain.
In Celtic peasant culture, however, elements of the harvest festival survived, even among Christians, just as the Christmas tree owes its origins to pre-Christian Germanic traditions without being a pagan ritual.
Combining the Celtic and the Christian
The Celtic elements included lighting bonfires, carving turnips (and, in America, pumpkins), and going from house to house, collecting treats, as carolers do at Christmas. But the “occult” aspects of Halloween—ghosts and demons—actually have their roots in Catholic belief. Christians believed that, at certain times of the year (Christmas is another), the veil separating earth from Purgatory, Heaven, and even Hell becomes more thin, and the souls in Purgatory (ghosts) and demons can be more readily seen. Thus the tradition of Halloween costumes owes as much, if not more, to Christian belief as to Celtic tradition.
Did you catch that? Not only is Halloween a Christian observance, but even some of the scary stuff that freaks me out – specifically ghosts and demons – has some link to Christianity. Sometimes I judge my Christian friends who spook out their houses on Halloween, and I feel quite satisfied with myself that I “only” decorate with pumpkins and cute felt fall leaves. Just as my neighbor made me feel judged, I have harbored judgment toward others, and these judgments have been unfair.
So, if you have skeleton decorations on your front door, I’m sorry I judged you. Being a Christian in the modern world is hard enough. It would be a lot easier if we loved one another better, if we approached one another with generosity rather than folded arms and a raised brow. I’m going to work on it, with God’s grace and assistance.
I think my observation about American culture around Halloween still holds: why are Americans so obsessed with vampires, zombies, and the undead? It’s one thing to recognize the inevitability of death and to remember the dead, and quite another to idolize demons and evil creatures, to think they are even sexy. I think on some level young people who are caught up in these things know that there is something more beyond this life, that it is only one short chapter in a journey and a sliver of some greater truth. It’s unfortunate they are not given the freedom to surrender to the whole truth and promise of salvation and God’s love. Now that’s really scary.