In Canada and the US, it’s become somewhat common for Catholics to look for alternatives to Halloween or to redefine parts of it. These include everything from dressing like saints instead of ghouls to turning off the lights, locking the doors and hiding from Halloween altogether.
Some of these practices are more admirable than others. In fact, I find the saint costumes rather cute. However, regardless of how admirable each of these approaches is, I believe none of them will last. Here’s why.
1. They Tend to Exclude the Community
By their very nature, many of these alternatives tend to exclude; no one needs to mention those who boycott Halloween altogether, or those who choose to have a private party at home or in their church. But even the more interactive alternatives – like dressing as saints – are more of an insider thing. If you’re not part of the small group who does it, you’re not going to be inspired to do it, or even take notice that it happens.
In itself, this doesn’t make a given practice wrong by any means. But it makes it far less likely to ever take hold as a living tradition.
2. They are Trends – and Trends are Temporary
As cynical as it may sound, it’s true. Especially with the age of the internet, as soon as a new and better idea springs up, parents will post pictures of it on Facebook. These alternatives will come and go with the decades.
3. They are Imitations of Imitations
Let’s face it. The Protestants did it first. They always do it first. And not only did they do it first, but they did it better. Just like upbeat church music and lively worship sessions. (Not to mention Bible studies, parish councils and a whole slew of other things we just can’t get right.) Evangelical parents started having Harvest Festivals in their churches on Oct. 31 to keep kids away from the ghoulishness of Halloween. They come up with their own imitation – in it’s own way, a good alternative.
So the Catholic neighbours see it and decide that we should also have a sanitized alternative of our own – kind of like theirs, but with a Catholic twist – like dressing up like saints. So we imitate their imitation.
Sadly, Catholic culture has become one of following followers – in art, music, festivities, and in so many other areas. In the days when Catholic culture was a major force shaping the world, it was a leader in all of these. Festivities are often overlooked when we want to restore Catholic culture, yet is perhaps the one that most people can relate to most readily.
4. They Deny Centuries of Popular Catholic Tradition
Numerous very well informed Catholic writers have over the past couple of decades reminded us that the roots of Halloween are entirely Catholic – specifically a blend of different popular traditions that grew out of All Saints and All Souls.
Of course, this isn’t big-T Tradition. But it is small-t tradition, which is important in its own way. For well over a millennium, Catholic lay tradition has focused on the souls of the faithful departed on these days – primarily on the suffering souls in Purgatory. Hence the ghosts.
The French dance macabre, the Mexican Day of the Dead, artistic tradition in Europe among other items feature skulls and skeletons not only to remember the dead, but to remind each one of us that “from dust we came, and to dust we will return.” One day our earthly bodies will decay below the ground, leaving only bones, if that. We must live for our life with God, otherwise we live for nothing.
Many critics will claim that these lay traditions are pagan, or even satanic. History itself shows otherwise. Yes, in some places, elements of the local culture were incorporated into the festivities. But these add to the richness rather than take from it. For example, the Mexican Day of the Dead skulls feature an Aztec style, but the meaning and the use are entirely Catholic. To purge Catholicism of everything it adopted from local cultures as it grew threw the world would leave us with a fairly dry and bland religion. (Kind of like what we already have in Canadian Catholicism – but that’s a different point.)
For Halloween, we do well to avoid the new “sexy ghost” fad and the demonic; yet ghouls and skeletons are not only a long part of Catholic lay tradition, but remind us of very key parts of Christian life.
5. They Miss the Point of the Day – Both Days!
The above point illustrates well how the sanitized versions of Halloween miss the point of All Souls; but it also misses the point of All Saints. All Saints celebrates all the saints – especially those that are not canonized. Canonized saints have their own days. Dressing up like them on Halloween does little to remind us of all the other saints out there, or to turn our prayers towards them.
The more ghastly elements of Halloween probably do a better job of turning us to the unknown saints, asking them to intercede both for the suffering souls in purgatory and for our own fleeting earthly lives.
So, What Do We Do Instead?
Like Chesterton with his book Heretics, each one of us who criticizes the current trend has the challenge to present a better solution. My suggestions are as follows:
- Participate in Halloween, with your community.
- Embrace the ghosts, skeletons and the like. They are part of our popular traditions, and they have meaning.
- If we wish to re-invigorate, reclaim or re-Catholicize Halloween, focus on the existing traditions that have thoroughly Catholic meanings.
We might consider looking to very Catholic traditions that are alive and well in other places – the candle-light visits to cemeteries, Mexico’s Day of the Dead, etc. These give us a strong foundation of centuries of tradition, as well as rich meaning and communal celebration. Incorporating elements of these would give us a chance make people aware of Halloween’s Catholic meaning.
Denying Halloween or the Catholic meaning of its ghoulishness will not accomplish anything – other than perhaps killing off yet one more Catholic holiday. Embracing it and reclaiming it will give us a chance to engage our communities directly, reminding them not only that the holiday is ours, but that they should be thinking of the life to come.