Halloween a Mix of Religious, Secular Traditions

I love Johnny Cash. My parishioners know it, and certainly the kids know it, since my “Ring of Fire” ring tone goes off occasionally while I am visiting their classrooms.

I have always loved Johnny Cash, even when I was really young. I saw him in concert for the first time when I was around 6 or 7 years old because I hounded my parents to take me to see him. To top it all off, most every year for Halloween I dressed up as the Man in Black, though once I remember being the Fonze. Halloween was one of those magical days of the year where your imagination would let you be whatever you wanted to be, with your parents’ permission of course.

It was not until I was an adult and had long stopped trick-or-treating that I found out some people have a big beef with Halloween, saying it should not be celebrated by Christians because of its questionable origins. So what’s the deal with this seemingly harmless holiday? Where does it originate, what does it mean, and should Catholics allow their children to take part in Halloween festivities?

The debate over the earliest origins of Halloween is unsettled. Some people try to connect it to ancient pagan practices of conjuring up the dead or even devil worship, but if we look for the origins of Halloween by determining the meaning of its name, then it has a decidedly Christian origin.

Halloween literally means “All Hallows’ Eve,” which was an actual liturgical feast on the Catholic calendar before the reforms following the Second Vatican Council. All Hallows’ Eve was the vigil Mass for All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, which is Oct. 31. So Halloween is a Christian holiday, or holy day, whatever the case may be.

That being said, Halloween in recent years certainly has taken on the trappings of a secular holiday far more than a Christian holy day. Candy, costumes, trick-or-treating and parties have added hoopla to a day that formerly had a much more solemn tone to it.

But Halloween is not alone in this. St. Valentine’s Day has its candy hearts, chocolates and flowers. St. Patrick’s Day has its green clothing and green beer. And, of course, Christmas seems to have everything else attached to it. I doubt that most parents prevent their children from wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day because it takes the focus off the great missionary saint. And, I highly doubt many guys refuse to send flowers to their wives or girlfriends on St. Valentine’s Day because it has nothing to do with St. Valentine himself. There is nothing wrong with enjoying some of the more secular aspects of an originally Christian holy day provided they do not completely eclipse the original meaning of the day. No one is going to stop me from having a green beer on St. Patrick’s Day.

Celebrating Halloween the right way can help remind us of the reason for the holy day. The children at school have a tradition of dressing up as a saint on Halloween. They spend a week learning about the saint, they do a report on the saint, and then they dress up as their saint and go around to the different classrooms. (You can’t beat the education at a Catholic school.) In doing this, the children are really learning the importance of the saints right on All Hallows’ Eve, the vigil of All Saints’ Day. Schools also host the annual Trunk & Treat parties before Halloween in which the children dress up in their more secular costumes, blending the best of both worlds.

Of course, it is up to each individual family to decide how they want to celebrate this holiday, which seems to have become more and more controversial in recent years. But in saying this, I do not think I turned out any worse as an adult because my parents let me dress up like Johnny Cash for Halloween when I was a kid.  The only problem that came as a result of trick-or-treating was maybe a greater potential of a cavity. I look back fondly on my innocent days of celebrating October 31.

In the year 2000, the famous Vatican-appointed exorcist Father Gabriele Amorth was interviewed by The Sunday Telegraph of London about Halloween and other questions of what is and is not appropriate for Catholics. Father Amorth said: “If English and American children like to dress up as witches and devils on one night of the year that is not a problem. If it is just a game, there is no harm in that.” For 99.99 percent of little children, that is exactly what Halloween is — a game, which happens to factor big into their experience as children.