To Treat or Not to Treat? Catholics and Halloween

The annual Halloween debate about whether or not Catholics should participate in this pagan holiday is raging anew, but one Deacon in the Diocese of Portland suggests that instead of continuing in our love-hate relationship with this holiday, we turn it into a valuable teaching moment for our children.

Writing in the Oregon Faith Report, Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers of Portland says Catholics seem to be divided into two camps on the subject of Halloween. One says Halloween must be rejected because it’s the devil’s holiday and corrupts the minds of children. The other says it’s okay because it’s just children playing make-believe and having fun.

He suggests that instead of taking sides, maybe Catholics can try a third approach.

“I believe this time of year presents our children with a tremendous faith-learning opportunity where the emphasis should be not on Halloween itself but on the Feast of All Saints.  They need to know the history of All Saints, its tacit connection to Halloween, and how it has become distorted by the secular culture,” Deacon Burke-Sivers writes. 

First of all, parents can start by explaining the long and rich tradition of the Feast of All Saints.

Begun in the 4th century, this feast was established by the early Christians to commemorate the martyrs who gave their lives for the faith during those first bloody centuries of Church history. Originally, it was celebrated on May 13, but it was changed to November 1 in the 9th century by Pope Gregory IV.

This is where the connection to Halloween comes in. 

As Father William Saunders explains in his article, “All Saints and All Souls,” November 1st is the same day that pagans used to mark the celebration of Samhain, which was the beginning of the Celtic winter.

“Samhain, for whom the feast was named, was the Celtic lord of death, and his name literally meant ‘summer’s end’,” Father writes. “Since winter is the season of cold, darkness and death, the Celts soon made the connection with human death. The eve of Samhain, Oct. 31, was a time of Celtic pagan sacrifice, and Samhain allowed the souls of the dead to return to their earthly homes that evening. Ghosts, witches, goblins, and elves came to harm the people, particularly those who had inflicted harm on them in this life.”

In order to protect themselves, people would extinguished their hearth fires and the Druids (who were priests and spintual teachers) built a huge bonfire of sacred oak branches and would offer burnt sacrifices of crops, animals, and even humans. They would then tell fortunes for the coming year based on an examination of the burnt remains.  People would sometimes wear costumes of animal heads and skins to these events. 

But the Celts weren’t the only group to contribute customs to what is now known as Halloween. In Ireland, people held a parade in honor of a god known as Muck Olla and would beg for food along the way. The Irish also created the legend of the jack-o-lantern which is a story about a man named Jack who was forbidden to enter heaven because of his stinginess, and could not enter hell because he played practical jokes on the devil. He was thus condemned to walk the earth with a lantern carved out of a pumpkin until Judgment Day.

The Roman conquest of Britain in AD 43 brought two more feasts into late October that still influence today’s celebration of Halloween. One was the feast of Feralia which was held in October to honor the dead and the other was an Autumn festival in honor of Pomona, the goddess of fruit and trees, which some believe is responsible for the association of apples with Halloween.

In spite of the fact that Christianity had spread throughout the world, many cultures maintained some of these traditions, which is what set the stage for the collision between the Feast of All Saints and that of All Hallows Eve or Halloween. 

“Instead of observing the Christian custom of remembering deceased loved ones in a special way, the culture exploited elements of pagan rituals and practices, creating a pseudo-holiday,” Deacon Burke-Sivers writes. “Nevertheless, it is clear that All Saints day evolved out of a purely Christian ethos and not from pagan idolatry.”

So where does that leave parents and children who are hankering to play dress up and collect a bag full of treats?

The extent and level of involvement parents choose for their children must remain a prudential decision, he says, but for all parents, it should be a time to not only instruct children on the value of praying for our dead, but also to challenge them to become saints.

“In order to become saints, we don’t need to be great theologians like Saints Augustine or Thomas Aquinas.  We don’t need to be martyrs like Saints Felicity and Perpetua.  We don’t even need to perform great works of charity like Mother Theresa or Martin de Porres.  In order to become saints, we must allow ourselves to be totally consumed by the fire of God’s absolute love.  We become saints by fulfilling Christ’s command to love the Lord Our God with our whole heart, with our whole soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength.”

The bottom line is this, he says. “We are responsible and will be held accountable for teaching our children the faith and helping them to fall ever more deeply in love with Jesus.  In our love of God and neighbor we too become saints, which should cause us to rejoice and be glad, for our reward will be great in heaven.”

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