When it comes to Catholics and Halloween, there are usually two opinions. One is that Halloween is the “devil’s night” and that Catholics shouldn’t indulge in this dark, neo-pagan ritual of death. The other is that it’s just a fun night to dress up, have a few scares and get a sugar high.
From the Catholic Church’s perspective, both viewpoints paint an incomplete picture of Halloween, which has a long and rich relationship with the faith. If Catholics discover this relationship, they’ll learn that Halloween has a special meaning when observed correctly.
Halloween and Catholicism
Halloween’s origins are debatable. The common story we hear is that it emerged from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, which marked the end of summer and the start of the winter season. It was celebrated in late October and early November, believed to be a time when the boundary between the worlds of the living and dead thinned, allowing supernatural entities to cross over more easily.
The origin story we don’t often hear is the Catholic one. By 609 AD, the doctrine of the “Communion of Saints” had firmly been established in the church and Pope Boniface IV rededicated the Roman Pantheon to honor all Christian martyrs. He did this on May 13, which became the first observance of All Saints’ Day, also known as All Hallows’ Day (The word “hallow” literally means “holy” or “sacred”). Naturally, the night before this day became All Hallows’ Eve or Halloween. A little more than 100 years later, Pope Gregory IV moved All Saints’ Day to November 1st and, as a result, Halloween moved to October 31st.
The question then becomes: Why did Pope Gregory move the holiday? Some historians believe he did it to coincide with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain to supplant it with a church feast day. That’s where the idea that it’s originally pagan comes from. However, others have questioned why the Pope would care so much about an ancient tribe living on the far fringes of Europe that he would move such an important church observance just for them. In other words, it may have been just a coincidence, especially since the transition from summer to winter is a logical time for societies to think about life and death.
In any event, the mere fact that All Saints’ Day and Halloween began in May, and not October, means that these observances evolved separately from the Celtic festival and, do, in fact, have Roman Catholic origins. Some Celtic traditions, such as bobbing for apples, may have been added to Halloween eventually, but the Catholic Church defined its original purpose.
The Catholic Tradition of Halloween
As a Catholic, it’s important to celebrate Halloween as the church intended—in the context of All Saints’ Day. This was the attitude observed in medieval Europe, where Halloween evolved as a night of preparation, or an “All Saints’ Day Eve.”
Think about how Catholics observe Christmas Eve or the Easter Vigil. The whole point of “eves” is to prepare for the main event the next day. In the case of Halloween, we are preparing to honor the victorious Saints on November 1st—victorious because they are “more closely united to Christ” (CCC 956).
Therefore, so long as Christ is in the front of mind, it’s ok to dress up, bob for apples and eat candy, but do so morally and in celebration of Christ’s victory over evil.
The Secular Tradition of Halloween
Of course, if you celebrate Halloween in the context of All Saints’ Day, this doesn’t mean it’s OK to indulge in the secular celebration of violence and horror that modern Halloween has devolved into. Just as Christmas has become secularized to focus on shopping and decorations, Halloween has become, essentially, a celebration of death. Instead of being a preshow for All Saints’ Day, Halloween has become the main event.
We see this in the gory lawn decorations, violent-looking costumes and overall fascination with the occult that pervades our culture on Halloween. The latter is especially dangerous. Evil is real and dabbling in things like Ouija boards and spells, even if just for fun, can expose one to dangerous forces.
Getting too involved in secular Halloween practices will ultimately make you lose sight of the holiday’s original purpose and intent. If you celebrate it only for the chills and thrills, you’re putting your soul in grave danger.
Some Catholic-Friendly Halloween Activities
Rejecting the secular corruption of Halloween and observing it as a Catholic doesn’t need to be boring. There are plenty of fun activities you can do with your family. Here’s just a few:
- Baking soul cakes: One activity that Catholics enjoyed on Halloween during the middle ages was baking soul cakes, or round cakes meant to commemorate the dead in anticipation of All Souls’ Day on November 2nd. These cakes were given out to children who traveled from door to door praying for the dead. This is believed to be the origin of “trick or treating.”
- Carving Catholic Saint-O’-Lanterns: Here’s a twist on the traditional Jack-O’-Lantern. Instead of carving a scary face into the pumpkin, carve a cross or a saint. When lit, it will be a great representation of how Christ shines through the darkness of the night.
- Theology and Treat: Along with candy, consider giving out prayer cards to remind trick-or-treaters of the Catholic purpose behind Halloween and raising awareness of All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Alternatively, you can put the candy in handmade Catholic envelopes like the ones pictured below.
Observing Halloween in light of our Catholic faith refocuses the holiday to its original purpose, recalling that no matter how dark and scary the night gets, Christ conquers all.
>> Check out this article for a great Catholic argument for Halloween made by Father Steve Grunow.