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article • Extraordinary Time

Putting the ‘Hallows’ Back in Halloween

The eve of All Saints Day is a reminder of our own mortality and our need to prepare ourselves to face God

Ah, the good old days. Steve Almond, in a recent opinion piece for The Boston Globe, reminisced about Halloween festivities during his youth:

I should start by disclosing that Halloween is my favorite holiday on earth. I love the blatantly transactional nature of it, the fact that it jettisons religious tradition in favor of uncut sugar lust. … Back when I was a kid, in the latchkey seventies, there was a communal understanding that certain acts of low-level vandalism and bullying were going to transpire on Halloween. Eggs were going to be chucked. Pumpkins were going to be smashed. Doorbells were going to be rung then ditched. While I’m technically not advocating for any of these activities, I do remember the sheer thrill of Halloween as being drenched with this sense of anarchic peril.

As a seventies kid who grew up in a culturally Christian family, I share Almond’s memories of Halloween as a time “for children to gather as much candy as possible in the limited window allotted”—although I can’t say I remember being allowed to vandalize property or otherwise annoy the neighbors. Perhaps one reason I thought of Halloween as a secular holiday was it was routinely celebrated in the public schools, with children invited to parade around the playground in their costumes.

When I became Catholic in the mid-nineties, I learned that Halloween was about more than costumes and candy, and that it certainly hadn’t jettisoned religious tradition. I also learned that there’s a lot of confusion among Catholics and other Christians over whether Halloween is a Christian holiday or a neopagan festival. Some love the holiday and dive into the festivities, both religious and secular, with gusto. Others worry about the holiday’s association with the devil and the occult, and devise a variety of workarounds for their children, such as dressing up as saints and throwing harvest festivals.

The word Halloween is a contraction of “All Hallows Evening,” the vigil for the Christian holy day All Saints Day, which falls on November 1. Part of the confusion over this holiday arises from the fact that many people no longer know what the word hallows means.

The word, not often used these days, refers to something consecrated to a special purpose. For example, when President Abraham Lincoln said in the Gettysburg Address that “we cannot hallow this ground,” he meant that the American people could not set apart for a special purpose, or make holy, the ground on which the Battle of Gettysburg had been fought— the men who had fought there had already done so through their suffering and death.

November 1 is celebrated by the Church as the Feast of All Saints, or the Feast of All Hallows, because those who are honored are all those in heaven—the holy ones of God. The vigil before that day is the Evening of All Hallows, or Halloween. Halloween, then, is a Christian holy day.

As with many Christian holidays, the secular world has attached its own traditions to Halloween (e.g., costumes, trick-or-treating, parties) that are not inherently bad but can be problematic when the religious meaning of the holiday is set aside, forgotten, or ignored.

At its best, Halloween is a reminder of our own mortality and our own need to prepare ourselves to face God one day. The festivities attached to the holiday can, as Mardi Gras does for Lent, prepare us for All Saints and All Souls, and for the month of November, which the Church sets aside for remembrance of the souls in purgatory. Christian parents have a variety of options for celebrating the holiday in a Christian spirit and should feel free to choose what works best for helping their families learn the “reason for the season.”

Why, then, is there a common idea that Halloween is a feast day for witches?

Pagan Celts celebrated a change-of-season feast called Samhain (pronounced SOW-win) in honor of the Celtic “lord of the dead” of the same name. The Celts’ preparations for physical survival during the coming winter season culminated with celebrations marking a time believed open to a special closeness between the natural and the supernatural—and, to the extent of the pagan Celts’ pre-Christian understanding, the preternatural—worlds.

Although there is no evidence that the Church chose the day of All Saints to fall on November 1 in order to “baptize” the pagan feast (the date for which was originally in May, coinciding with the pagan Roman Lemuria festival), there was a certain fittingness to the replacement of Samhain with All Saints Day when the Celts converted to Christianity. At Samhain, Celts honored deceased ancestors and believed that the “veil” between the living and the dead was lifted. A day that honored Christian saints and martyrs likely seemed appropriate to the newly Christian Celts.

When witchcraft was revived in the mid-twentieth century, modern witches appropriated Samhain as a holy day. At the same time, Halloween had fallen out of favor with many Christians, who criticized the focus of the celebrations on costuming, parties, and sometimes destructive pranks. Perhaps because Samhain was revived about the same time that Halloween’s stock as a Christian holiday plummeted, in many people’s minds the two became conflated.

It is worth noting, though, that many modern pagans do recognize the difference between Samhain as a pagan holiday and Halloween as either a purely secular feast or a holiday derived from Christianity. Some of them scruple over whether pagans should celebrate Halloween.

Pagan author Patti Wigington answered the question, “Is it anti-pagan to celebrate Halloween? … I’m sort of worried it might seem disrespectful to go out collecting candy while I’m supposed to be honoring the spirits of my dead ancestors.” Wigington responded, in part:

Much like Yule and Christmas, Samhain and Halloween are two different ways of observing the same time of year. Think of Samhain as the spiritual version, and Halloween as the secular. There’s no reason at all why you can’t celebrate both if you choose. In our family, we do a huge Halloween party with friends and family. I also do a Samhain ritual with my coven. There’s never been a conflict.

Pagans may not see any conflict between Halloween and Samhain, but Christians should not make that mistake. Halloween is first and foremost the vigil of All Saints Day.

There are certain folk rituals associated with the holiday in which Christians are free to participate, but participation in witchcraft remains prohibited without exception. The celebratory aspect of the holiday is what might be called “holy mockery” of the devil. And, as St. Thomas More observed of the devil, “the proud spirit cannot endure to be mocked.”

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