By Father Steve Grunow

Q. I always figured that Halloween had pagan roots, but you are telling me they are Catholic. Huh? How so?

The origin and traditional customs associated with Halloween require no other explanation than that they are examples of the kinds of festivity that served as a means of celebrating the various holy days of the Catholic Liturgical Year. This includes everything from masquerades, feasting, and the associations of a given day of the year with supernatural or spiritual truths.

I would draw a distinction between the violent, macabre imagery that characterizes the modern appropriation of Halloween as a kind of secular celebration and the more traditional customs that are characteristic of a Catholic cultural ethos. The descent of Halloween into the madness of an annual fright fest is a relatively recent development, but the true substance of Halloween belongs to the Church. Halloween (or “All Hallows Eve”) is the festive precursor to the celebration of the Church’s public commemoration of All Saints Day.

There has been an appropriation of the festivities of Halloween by modern pagans, but please understand that modern paganism is precisely modern and should be distinguished from the cults of ancient religions. The origins and practices of the modern paganism do not extend farther back than the late nineteenth century. Also, remember, the term “pagan” is a slippery one. What does it mean? The worship of the gods and goddesses from long ago? Those cults have long since passed away with the cultural matrix that once supported the world views that were the conditions for their possibility. You can’t just reinvent those cults without the culture that supported them.

!!!!!!!!!-hallows-4The paganism that exists today is a romantic and very selective attempt at a re-appropriation of an ancient religious ethos, but it isn’t and cannot be the same thing that paganism was in its original cultural expressions. I think that the practitioners need to justify their beliefs by insisting on an association with what they are doing and ancient forms and styles of worship. This gives the impression that the modern pagan élan has more gravitas (especially in relation to Christianity) but it doesn’t make it the same thing as the ancient cults. The association that modern paganism makes between itself and the forms and styles of ancient culture is more about desire than it is about reality.

I think that the association of Halloween with paganism has much more to do with the Protestant Reformation than anything else. The Protestant reformers were concerned about the practices of medieval Christianity that to them seemed contrary to what they believed the Church should be. They knew that these practices had clear precedents in the history of the Church, but insisted that they represented a corruption of the original form of Christianity that had become degraded over time. The degradation was explained as a regression into cultural forms that the Protestants described as pagan.

I realize popular religiosity is a complex phenomenon and the Church in Europe did intentionally assimilate many cultural practices that were more ancient than it’s own practices, but it did so selectively and with a keen sense of discernment. The end result was not simply that a veneer of Christianity was placed on top of an ancient pagan ethos, but that a new cultural matrix was created, one that was Christian to its core. It is a gross mischaracterization and oversimplification to assert that you can just scratch the surface of medieval Christianity and what rises up is paganism.

!!!!!!!!!-hallows--avalonAnd yet this perception endures in contemporary culture. You see it, for example, in works of fiction like Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “The Mists of Avalon”, which appropriates ideas from a lot of spurious, pseudo scholarship that permeated British intellectual culture throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Unfortunately, this has become a standard and widely accepted narrative of how Europe became Christian. It is a modern myth born of the prejudices and propaganda of the Protestant reformation that mutated into the secular critique of Catholicism. As an ideological construct it represents the simultaneous fascination and aversion to Medieval culture in general and Catholicism in particular. The reality is far more complex and interesting.

Protestantism was and is proposing what its adherents believe to be an alternative to Catholicism. This means that Protestantism will distinguish itself from the forms and styles of religious life that preceded their own culture and that this culture will be presented as a purified form of Christian faith and practice. One argument that is advanced to justify Protestant distinctiveness is that the beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church are pagan.

!!!!!!!!!-hallows-5Placing all this in an American cultural context, the United States set its cultural roots in forms of Protestantism that were keenly aware of the distinction between themselves and a Catholic Europe that they had rejected and whose influence they had hoped to leave behind. Remember, the Puritans left Protestant England for the New World because England wasn’t Protestant enough! The Puritans detested the residual forms of Catholicism that they believed remained in the state church of England.

The arrival of Catholic immigrants to the shores of Protestant America was a source of great cultural consternation. The public festivals of the Catholic Faith were characterized as a corrupting and dangerous form of paganism. Halloween with all its carousing and shenanigans was especially problematic, as it represented the incursion of a specifically Catholic cultural form into a public life that was supposed to be Protestant. Everything associated with these Catholic festivities was caricatured as pagan and the association stuck with even the Catholics internalizing the critique and believing that their own customs were holdovers from paganism.

As a result, the distinctly Catholic nature of Halloween became more and more muted and it was Catholics pulling back from their own festival that gave rise to the contemporary version of Halloween. The goulish version of the festival that we have today is in many respects a result of Catholic accommodation to a Protestant culture. And in a another strange twist in the history of Halloween, most everything that the devout Protestant detests about Halloween have become all the more pronounced as a result of their protests.

!!!!!!!!!-hallows-7What is the relation of Halloween to All Saints/All Souls? Which came first?

All Saints Day appears to have a more ancient genealogy than All Souls Day.

The practice of a festival day to honor the whole communion of Saints, rather than that just a single saint, seems to happen for the first time in the Catholic Church with the consecration of the Pantheon as a public place for the Church’s worship. This happened in the year 609 (or 610) on May 13th. The Pantheon had been originally dedicated for the use of Roman religion as a place where all the gods would be honored. Boniface displaced the images of the gods from their shrines and gave the building over to the Saints of the Church, particularly the Martyrs. This was a kind of “in your face” to pagan culture. Boniface was saying that the old gods had been defeated and were defeated by the faith of the Church’s Martyrs.

Also, May 13th was a day associated in Roman religion with what was called the festival of the Lemurs or ancestral spirits. It is likely that Boniface’s choice of this day to claim the Pantheon for Christian worship was intentional and it was a way of saying that the Martyrs are the great ancestors of all the baptized and it is their memory and witness that is rightly honored on the day that Romans recalled their ancestors.

How we get from May 13th to November 1st is interesting. The festival of All Saints seems to emerge from the dedication of another Roman church that was consecrated by Pope Gregory III. The church is named St. Peter and all the Saints. It was a subsequent pope, Gregory IV, who extended the annual festival that commemorates this church dedication to the whole Church as All Saints Day. The extension of festivals specific to the Church of Rome is an part and parcel of how the Catholic Faith becomes the underlying cultural matrix from which a new kind of European civilization would emerge.

All Souls Day (celebrated November 2nd) seems to emerge with the growth and spread of monastic communities and the practice of commemorating deceased members of monasteries. This practice gained broad cultural traction and in time was extended to the whole Church.

Halloween is the precursor to All Saints Day and as such is kind of like what December 24th is to Christmas Day. Remember, the calendar of the Church is filled with festival days, all of which were once associated with great, public celebrations. A holy day of obligation has not always meant spending 45 minutes in church for Mass and then going back to work. Holy Days were times for a party and if you look at the Church’s calendar, past and present, with this ethos in mind you will discover that the reasons for a party happened with great frequency..

!!!!!!!!!-hallows-all-saints-dayI know that there are some Celtic or Germanic elements to the holiday that we’ve come to embrace as Halloween. Which traditions are Catholic and which are not?

The festival is not ethnic or nationalistic. It is Catholic. Certainly there were regional appropriations of the festivals of the Church, and Halloween was no exception, but bottom line these festal days belonged to the Church as a whole which meant pretty much all of Europe. You might have some customs that were specific to regions, but the festival itself is a distinctly Catholic practice.

There are some folks that have come to believe that there is some association of Halloween with a pagan festival called Samhain, but this is not really the case.

In terms of customs that are specific to Catholicism, it is all pretty much derivative from the kinds of stuff that you find in the public festivities of Catholic culture. In this regard Mardi Gras is probably the best point of reference. We think of Mardi Gras and its attendant festivities as specific to one day, but it used to be that that kind of festival environment occurred with great frequency throughout the Church’s year. Think of all the customs associated with Halloween as a Mardi Gras before All Saints Day and I think you get a perspective in regards to all the excess and tomfoolery. The party was meant to culminate in Solemn Worship, after which one returned to the routine of life. Unfortunately, the Church has surrendered the party to the secular culture. It has happened with Halloween. It is happening with Christmas.

All this being said, you don’t have to reach into the “Mists of Avalon” to discern the meaning of cultural practices that are associated with the Church that seem unfamiliar to us. The meaning is likely something that is much more straightforwardly Christian than you think— and likely a form and style of being a Christian that is distinctly Catholic.

!!!!!!!!!-hallows-1What do you think of the trend of parents boycotting Halloween on account of it being evil? What would you say to them if they told you such? Not safety or healthy concerns keeping kids indoors, but abject opposition to something believed to be satanic or terrorizing?

I would say that those parents are acting like good Puritans.

There is a lot that is unsavory about the contemporary celebration of Halloween. What does the singular focus on violence, horror and death have to say about our culture? The traditional, Catholic Halloween placed these realities within the context of Christ’s victory over sin, death and the devil. The current secularized version of the festival has no salvific content and has been loosed from its theological moorings. It looks very much like a festival of death for a culture of death and for that reason I can see why parents might be concerned.

But what is the proper response to a culture of death? To lock the Church behind closed doors or to let her out into the world? I think it is time for Catholics to accept the religious liberties that this culture claims to afford them and go public with their own festivals- and to do so dramatically and with a great deal of public fervor. What is holding us back? What are we afraid will happen? The reticence and fear that characterizes Catholics is costing the Church its unique culture and it is allowing the culture of death to flourish.

!!!!!!!!!-hallows-9What does the Catechism have to say about Halloween?

The Catechism has a lot to say about the characteristics of heroic virtue and holiness of life that create the Church’s saints. It also has a lot to say about Christ’s victory over sin, death and the devil. These are the kinds of things that the festivities of Catholic Halloween should be celebrating with great gusto and panache.

One of the appealing elements of celebrating Halloween as a child, aside from the candy and costume stuff, is the spookiness factor — the thrill of being scared without any real risk. From a Catholic perspective, is that important? Is the experience of being fearful or having an awareness of evil an essential element for a Catholic kid to learn?

I think that all cultures employ cautionary tales which are replete with supernatural imagery and use this imagery as a means of teaching boundaries and inculcating a sense that there are dangerous people and situations that they could encounter and should be wary of. Further, I think that stories told to a group will have the ability to evoke a shared emotional experience and as such bond the community together. It is not only Christian cultures that will employ a narrative, even a frightening one, to communicate their worldview and impart values.

I do think that Catholics need to learn from an early age to look at the world realistically and without the blurring lenses of sentimentality. The world is fallen and finite. People will hurt one another. We are sinners. But this darkness is illuminated by the light of God’s revelation in Christ that makes the deepest truth of what it means to be human available to us in the Incarnation and Paschal Mystery of the Lord Jesus. Yes, look honestly at sin and death. Know about the lure and deceptions of fallen, spiritual powers. Realize that greater than all the fallen powers of heaven and earth is the power of God in Christ, which is a love that is stronger than sin, death and the devil. It is this divine power that is given to the believer in a personal way through Jesus Christ. He is victorious over everything that we are afraid of. His love is stronger than death. The power of his divine life dispels evil. Even as we gaze into the shadows we see his light.

!!!!!!!!!-hallows-graveyardAutumnI read somewhere that Halloween is seen as the day when the veil between heaven and earth and purgatory is thinnest, hence the presence of souls. That seems like some seriously “new agey” stuff. Is this a Catholic thing or is that where Wiccans and imaginative Hollywood types step in?

I don’t know precisely the metaphysical precedents that one would use to justify the belief that there are on specific days thicker and thinner veils between the natural and supernatural realms. It seems esoteric and speculative.

I do think that the reality that such a perspective represents has great power as a narrative that explains for some folks how they think that the natural and the supernatural interact with one another. Is it true? I don’t know how one would adjudicate such a claim definitively. As such, it remains a supposition or a possibility.

The Catholic Faith describes natural and supernatural realities existing in a relationship of communion or co-inherence that is called sacramental. This means that because of the Incarnation of God in Christ, natural realities can express supernatural realities. Physical realities can truly be bearers of divine grace.

The divine grace that is revealed in the Church’s commemoration of Halloween should be our participation in what is called the Communion of Saints. This Communion of Saints means that this world is not all that there is and that those who have passed through the experience of death continue to love us, care for us and even through God’s permissive will, can interact with us. It also means that that the Christian can hope that God’s power in Christ to save and redeem extends beyond this world to the next and as such we can hope that few of us will be lost causes. The festivities of Halloween should affirm that these beliefs about the Communion of Saints are real and are also the deepest reality of what this world has become because of the revelation of God in Christ.

Fr.-Steve-GrunowFather Steve Grunow is a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago and the Chief Executive Officer of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries

Reprinted with permission from Word On Fire All rights reserved.

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  1. Thank you, Fr. Grunow. Though Halloween will be over soon, do you think you could elaborate on how ancient festivities have nothing to do with it? For example, how Samhein was related to the harvest and how some of this was supposed to be when spirits roamed the Earth, or how people supposedly dressed up to hide form these spirits?

  2. The fundamental error with this analysis of the Halloween and the Catholic faith is that, even if it is theology is correct (and I would argue that it is overreaching the theological origins of the event and the accompanying culture from which it grew more than just a bit), this article completely missed the mark in its audience. In America, in the Year of our Lord, 2013, the target population for Halloween is children under the age of reason – that is under the age of seven or there abouts. Children under this age are considered to be concrete learners, not yet capable of the abstract, symbolic theology presented in this article. We can see the Roman Catholic Church’s application of this knowledge of the age of reason in that it does not routinely offer the Sacrament of First Communion or First Confession to children under the age of seven years old. Why not? Because children under the age of reason, those who are the target markets of every Halloween aisle in every story in America from late August to late October, cannot say, “Amen,” to something they cannot possibly understand.

    As adults, especially if one happens to be an adult who does live with young children, if can be hard to remember what it is like to take everything literally. Therefore, if you cannot understand the age of concrete learning and inability to integrate information symbolically, conduct the social experiment of standing in one of those millions of Halloween aisles and asking yourself, “Is there anything here that could possibly, concretely represent a loving, merciful, kind Jesus?” No, there is not. Therefore, no matter in what way we try to massage the words or definitions of the event, when we dress children up (in even a nice, happy costumes) and join with the rest of the children who are running around in witch and devil and ghost, black cat and all sorts of other gruesome costumes, outfits which are concretely associated with both historical and contemporary paganism, our children have not picked up on the (possible) cultural and theological nuances discussed in the article. They have learned that, for at least one day a year, it is okay to behave like a pagan if it means getting copious amounts of free candy.
    With all due respect to the intellectual processing and research it took to write this article, I believe, Fr. Grunow, is responsible for sowing confusion in the minds of the very well-intended parents of young children who would be the only sort of Catholics even considering reading his article while wondering if the Lord wants them to “celebrate” Halloween with their innocent children. It wouldn’t even occur to the largest number of Catholics to even question the cultural practice of our day, much less to search out an article about it on a specifically Catholic website, so we are talking about a very select audience for this article. And it seems to me that an audience which had done the due diligence of researching the topic thoroughly, should be given much more developmentally appropriate advice on how to create an authentically Catholic culture in their home when it comes to the question of Halloween.
    This article, unfortunately is neither developmentally appropriate nor culturally aware of the true pastoral needs of its (possible) audience’s (not intellectual information, but practical guidance).
    The most important pastoral point about Halloween, which has been left completely unsaid so far, is that we, as Catholics are not obliged to “celebrate” it or even to find some half-way palatable alternative to it! We are truly not obliged. We have both All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days to celebrate! Why not put equal energy into clarifying this point for the select reading audience of this article, and then put equal energy into presenting some wonderful, culturally-hip, age-appropriate ways to celebrate these two, authentically Catholic holidays? That would be a great, truly useful contribution to the lives of those who take the time to think about how to best raise children to the glory of God.

    • Totally agree with you. I wish all could see how cleverly Satan deceives humans by twisting, manipulating, repackaging with a pretty bow and then makes us pay for things God clearly says “Have nothing to do with such, as they are abominations”.

    • Thank you, Heidi! I am not a parent, but I am preparing for when I do have a family. I know you wrote this a while ago, but I suggest looking to religious communities for ideas. I spent some time in a convent and these Sisters really celebrated the big Church Feasts. They had food, decorations, music, dancing, games, skits, fun, and laughter. The Mass and the prayer times provided the focus and the mind-set, and all the rest fleshed it out and made for a very enjoyable and memorable time. I personally don’t have much interest in re-claiming Halloween or “All Hallows Eve.” Like you said, kids aren’t going to be able to make the distinction very well, if at all. But on the same note, are kids going to understand when you explain why other kids get to do this and they don’t (at the same time trying to not to instill fear or a judgmental disposition)…probably not…it is sad that they miss the camaraderie, but I hope to live near like-minded families so that we can all prepare for and celebrate All Saints Day together. And some day the kids will be old enough to understand the explanation, to agree or disagree.

    • I disagree. It is the job of parents to teach their kids about the true nature of All Saints Day. It’s the same with Christmas. We don’t need to forbid snowmen and elves and santas, but we cannot let them eclipse the real meaning of Christmas. Same with halloween. We don’t have to ban pumpkins, and costumes, and candy, but we cannot let them obscure the real meaning of Halloween. We should prudently avoid anything evil or demonic, and instead restore the celebration to its original meaning. If kids can understand Christmas and Easter, they can understand Halloween.

  3. […] The arrival of Catholic immigrants to the shores of Protestant America was a source of great cultural consternation. The public festivals of the Catholic Faith were characterized as a corrupting and dangerous form of paganism. Halloween with all its carousing and shenanigans was especially problematic, as it represented the incursion of a specifically Catholic cultural form into a public life that was supposed to be Protestant. Everything associated with these Catholic festivities was caricatured as pagan and the association stuck with even the Catholics internalizing the critique and believing that their own customs were holdovers from paganism.* […]

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