By now you’ve probably noticed that the stores are stocked with Christmas items – cards, decorations, trees and gifts – a sure sign that Halloween is just around the corner! Of course the Halloween stuff has been on the counters since Labor Day so we should be well-prepared for our annual foray into the nether world.
I’ve read that Halloween is the second biggest commercial holiday of the year, right after Christmas and it’s certainly become a huge party day, for children, teens and adults alike. And with each year comes the debate whether Halloween is Christian or pagan, good or evil. The Diocese of Providence isn’t immune from the controversy.
For several years now during the Halloween Season one of our diocesan youth centers has sponsored a “Haunted Labyrinth.” It’s intended to be a fun-filled activity for families and young people, as well as a fund-raiser for youth ministry projects. I’m told, however, that each year some folks have expressed their sincere concern over the propriety of the activity. This year is no exception.
A few weeks ago I received a letter about the “Haunted Labyrinth” from a member of the Diocese expressing his dismay that we would sponsor such a nefarious project. He says: “I feel that the Haunted Labyrinth can in effect cause scandal and confusion to many young Catholics, who rather, should be receiving formation that will allow them to know, love and serve God . . . Our Catholic youth should be encouraged to imitate the saints rather than demons, witches and warlocks. There must be a better way to raise funds in which our diocese can also receive God’s blessing.”
The writer raises some good points. Our young people certainly should be exposed to sound catechesis that teaches us to love and to serve the Lord; we should look to the saints as our heroes and role models; and the Church does need to be vigilant about the sources of its income.
In this context it might be helpful to mention the history of Halloween. Where did it come from and how did it evolve into its current form?
For the ancient Celtic tribes, November 1 marked the beginning of a new year and the coming of winter. The night before the New Year they celebrated the festival of Samhain, the Lord of the Dead. During this festival the people wore masks and lit bonfires to scare away the evil spirits that roamed the earth that night.
When the Romans conquered the Celts, they added a few of their own touches to the pagan festival, introducing some customs we’d be familiar with today, such as drinking apple cider and bobbing for apples. And finally in 835 Pope Gregory IV moved the feast of the martyrs (later all saints) to November 1. The night before All Saints Day became known as All Hallows Eve, eventually shortened to Halloween.
But what about our current observance?
Well, without a doubt, Halloween has a dark and disturbing side. Each year we hear about dangerous activities that accompany the day. Cable channels are filled with scary, violent films. Parents have to monitor the neighborhoods their children visit and then inspect the candy and cookies for foreign objects or poison. And we’re regularly warned to protect our puppies and kittens lest some really sick individuals steal them for animal sacrifice or demonic activities.
But I think for most people, Halloween is more pleasant and positive than that.
As a kid growing up in Pittsburgh, my experience of Halloween was fun, not dangerous. It had everything to do with candy, and nothing to do with Satan. I remember walking though our Laurel Gardens neighborhood in an inexpensive costume my Mom had purchased for a few bucks, and I personally knew all of the streets and most of the neighbors. (You see, at night I was the scary ghost or skeleton, but by day I was the friendly and reliable paperboy.) I carried a brown paper shopping bag, going door to door with a couple of friends, hurrying to the houses distributing the best candy bars. On warm evenings it got really hot and sweaty in that costume and if it rained it was even worse since both my costume and the paper bag quickly dissolved. More than once I lost a boatload of candy on Eighth Avenue just before I got home. But there were no destructive tricks, vandalism or torching of buildings. No fears of being kidnapped or molested. No trips to the local hospital to have our candy x-rayed. Just fun and adventure, that’s all.
And I think for most people, then and now, that’s the purpose of Halloween. While we should be very aware of the dangers and darkness that can accompany Halloween I don’t think we need to overreact or ruin the innocent fun that most children, teens and even adults experience on this day.
And we shouldn’t neglect the many ways that Halloween can be returned to its Christian heritage. For example, it provides a great opportunity for creative family activities. We can engage in some charitable activity that benefits others, especially children who don’t have the luxury of collecting candy. We can take time to learn about the martyrs and saints whose memory started the Christian observance. And, most of all, after celebrating Halloween, we can be sure to attend Holy Mass on All Saints Day, a holyday of obligation, to honor the saints and pray for the day when we’ll finally move from the evil and darkness of the secular world into the goodness and light of God’s Kingdom.
This column was previously published in Rhode Island Catholic