My Childhood Halloweens

As a kid in a non-religious household, I enjoyed all the secular aspects of Halloween. 

  • the art projects at school
  • my mother putting up a few decorations
  • picking a costume
  • my mother refusing to buy it
  • so then making a costume
  • going door to door for candy
  • then going home to hand out candy while watching edited scary movies on commercial television until all the kids coming to the door had five o’clock shadows and my mother deciding it was time to close up and head to bed.  

Unsure of Halloween

It wasn’t until I had children of my own and became more religious that I revisited the concept of Halloween and started to question whether or not celebrating it was good for their soul (because it certainly wasn’t good for their teeth).  It seemed almost taken for granted in our culture that Halloween was a Druid holiday co-opted by the Catholic church because that is what the Catholic church does; it steals holidays from unsuspecting Pagans.

I came across people in the Christian world on each end of the spectrum.  There were those I met, usually non-Catholic Christians (though a few Catholics too), who very much believed that Halloween had satanic or pagan roots and wanted nothing to do with it.  They spent Halloween night hidden in their darkened house with the curtains drawn and an anti-Halloween message posted on their door instead of a bucket of candy.  By morning their trees would be covered in toilet paper and their cars covered in eggs.  

And I met some who were very enthusiastic about Halloween and insisted it had entirely Catholic roots (amongst the religious, there seem to be far fewer representatives on this end of the scale).  They would go out to the country, light a bonfire and beat the devil in effigy while chanting a prayer to Saint Michael.  The neighborhood kids didn’t mess with their yard because you don’t mess with a yard owned by people like that.

Like many Catholics in America today, I was a couple of generations removed from my more devout ancestors and their traditions.  In order to decide where I fell on the Halloween-celebrating conundrum, I decided to research the holiday and find out what, if anything, the Catholic church had to do with All Hallow’s Eve.

Where Halloween Came From

The earliest roots of Halloween began with just how one would think a holiday would begin: the mass slaughter of Christians just for being Christians.

In the early days of Christianity, Christians celebrated feasts on the anniversaries of the deaths of their local martyrs to honor the martyr’s “birth” into eternal life.  During the Diocletian persecutions (284-305 AD), however, the martyrs became so numerous it was difficult to keep track of even the most prominent of them and it soon became clear that the church needed a designated day to celebrate her saints.

On May 13 of 609 or 610 AD, Pope Boniface IV had the pagan idols removed from the Roman Pantheon, consecrated it as a church for the Blessed Virgin and all the martyrs and made it a feast day on which to remember them.

It was Gregory III (731-741 AD) who moved the feast day from May 13 to November 1  at Saint Peter’s.

Gregory IV (827-844 AD) extended the feast to the entire church, becoming our All Saints day feast. 

The All Souls day feast took a bit longer to mainstream.   Monks in their monastic communities were praying for their dead before anyone else was praying for their dead (they were, and still are, Catholicism’s hipsters).  The practice picked up in the communities around the monasteries and eventually made its way into the Catholic culture at large.  In 1915, Pope Benedict XV made it an official three Mass feast.

So what does all of this have to do with Halloween?  Well, in Catholic culture of yore, where there was a feast day (or two, as in this case), there was the vigil before. And Catholics are a celebratory people.  They like to kick off their days of solemnity with a bit of a party.  Before Lent there is Mardi Gras and before All Saints and All Souls, there was All Hallow’s Eve, a day of merriment and feasting before they went about the important business of praying for souls.

The Link Between Halloween and Paganism

The linking of Halloween to Druid Paganism seems to be more of a myth perpetuated by protestants rather than actual fact.  Protestants disputed the Catholic church’s teaching on purgatory and praying for the dead and also wanted to attract members by being a “purer Christian” alternative to Catholicism.  They, therefore, made claims that the Catholic church had corrupted itself by soaking up pagan cultures and painting over them with a superficial Catholic sheen.  This, however, is a gross over-simplification.  

As the Catholic church spread to other cultures, it did absorb some of the new culture’s traditions and styles, but the church only did so selectively and with much discernment.  Think of it, if Halloween were nothing more than Samhein re-named, Catholics would be spending the night running “clothing insecure” (naked) around bonfires and engaging in human sacrifice.

We were all built by God to be seasonal people, so of course Christian holidays are sometimes going to fall around the same time as Pagan holidays in that Pagans were also made by God to be seasonal people who liked to celebrate God’s changing world.  They were just doing it not entirely right.  Which is why Christ sent his disciples into the world to spread the word on how to do it entirely right.

The whole “Catholic traditions and practices are Pagan” claims really picked up in intensity with the large Catholic migration to our very Protestant country at the turn of the last century when Catholics brought to America’s stark Puritan shores things like “fun” and “merriment.”  It became so that any and all Catholic festivities were termed Pagan and eventually, even Catholics started believing it.  Even though in the case of Halloween, the traditions associated with it aren’t really even that old or sinister and nobody seems to know exactly where they came from.  For instance, trick or treating is believed to have come from a tradition in Celtic culture where children would go door to door and offer to pray for a deceased relative in exchange for a treat.  Or it comes from an activity known as “souling” in which poor people knocked on doors and asked for food in exchange for prayers for the dead.  Or it started with Guy Fawkes day.  Or it started with the Druids.  Or it started with any number of other theoretical beginnings –nobody seems to know for sure.

It seems the only factual evidence about the origin of Halloween traditions is that there is no factual evidence about the origin of Halloween traditions.  There are just a lot of hypotheses but they are expounded with such confidence one would think there is a detailed written record leading back to each one.

And so it turns out that All Hallow’s Eve is actually, historically quite Catholic as long as you celebrate All Saints day and All Souls day as well.  For without the solemnities, Halloween, their vigil, is a shallow celebration and doesn’t make any sense.

Celebrating Halloween as a Catholic

The task at hand now was to figure out how to celebrate the three days.  Ironically, the protestant insistence of all removal of any religiosity from Halloween seemed to have left a void that secular culture was only too happy to fill with sexualization, celebration of the demonic and macabre.  It’s become almost a black Christmas for some (at least, commercialization-wise!)

Manufactured costumes seem to fall in one of three categories:  demonic, sexy or over-priced.  I don’t know if they make female costumes of any age anymore that don’t have some sort of “sexy” spin to them. 

  • Sexy princess
  • Sexy fairy
  • Sexy sanitation worker
  • Sexy Freddie Krueger… 

I even googled sexy shark one time after trying to brainstorm a costume that could not possibly have a sexy treatment. It exists!  The sexy shark costume actually exists!

Facing these unsavory choices, we decided hand made costumes would work best for our family.  It gives us a project to do as a family and it gets the kids working with their hands.  It also makes it easier for the parent to influence costume decisions.  This year, I’m trying to get them to go as a place setting which I think would be hilarious.  There has been much pushback from my fork, however.  She thinks a place setting is the worst group costume idea that has ever been thought up and wants to, instead, go as an elephant mermaid.  Third graders have no imagination.

We also home make all the Halloween decorations.  It saves money and keeps the house from looking like it belongs to satan.  I think it also preserves Halloween at a level of less importance than Christmas or Easter, which is important, I think. It is, after all, only a vigil.  I’ll leave the torture chamber with gorey detail and realistic looking corpses in the front yard to my neighbors.  Their yard is the neighborhood eye sore in the autumn, taking the pressure off of us after our yard was the neighborhood eye sore all summer.

The kids go door to door to a few houses around our own before it gets dark.  It’s been a nice way to get to know some of our neighbors and the kids get some chocolate for me to confiscate later.  We wind down the whole evening with a viewing of “It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown” while handing out candy until my husband doesn’t want to get up off the couch to answer the door anymore.

Then Comes All Saints Day

The next morning, we start preparations for the All Saints Day party thrown by my homeschool group.  Each year, intentions to start the costumes early have proved fruitless.  So instead of putting them in carefully sewn habits or cassocks, I end up searching around the house to find clothing and items on hand to cobble together into a costume representative of a saint.

We’ve made a construction paper animal skin shirt for Saint John the Baptist, a felt crown with candles for Saint Lucy, an old angel costume (minus the wings) and felt zuchetti for St John Paul II and, probably my biggest “I’m completely out of time to get this kid’s costume done” costume was when I tied the little grate from my toaster oven to my three-year-old who went as Saint Lawrence.

Despite my failings as a good All Saints costume mom, we still manage to learn a lot about the saints while researching costume ideas.

At the party, the kids march in a parade and do a litany of the saints.  When our group was a little smaller, each child did a small presentation on their saint and the other kids had to guess which saint they were.  There are various activity tables like Saint Sebastion pumpkin races, Saint George sword fighting, the Saint Vincent de Paul can collection for the food pantry and a Saint Theresa of Calcutta raffle.

Once home, our intention is to do our own litany of the saints, but it’s usually too difficult to resurrect them from their sugar-crash induced comas.

And Finally, All Souls Day

On All Souls day, after Mass, we make a trip to the cemetery.  We get to practice map reading to locate the family plots and then six hours later, when we finally find them, we clean off the headstones, adorn them with flowers, candles, or special decorations (one year we made sugar skulls) and then we pray for the souls of our dead relatives. 

Once home, we hang pictures of our ancestors  on the wall and spend the rest of the month praying for them and all the souls in purgatory with “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord” either on its own, said within the rosary or said with grace before meals.

The Reason for the Season

Instead of participating in a mostly secularized, empty holiday based around candy, horror and skimpy costumes with a nagging fear that the scuttle I’ve heard about it having Pagan roots are true, we’ve brought Catholicism back into it.  Now we have our vigil and two powerful days in which we celebrate, pray with and remember the entirety of the mystical body of the church that Jesus founded for us. Those of us on Earth, those in purgatory and those in heaven – all trying to help each other out through prayer.

Reprinted from my former blog “Trying to Live the Little Way”, originally published on October 27, 2015

(My hope is to eventually get most everything moved over here and to close that one up.)

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