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The Holy Ghosts of Halloween: Resurrecting a Catholic Feast

Currents in popular culture have so eroded the observance of Halloween that it can often be difficult, at times even impossible, to discern in contemporary revelry this great feast’s essentially evangelical religious meaning. The anticipatory celebration of the Solemnity of All Saints—Halloween—is a time when God’s pilgrim Church on earth rejoices in the lives of all his holy ones. As the annual celebration of Halloween approaches, we who are “in the world but not of it” (John 15:19, Evangelium Vitae, 82) are reminded once again of the importance of maintaining the Catholic meaning and purpose of all holy days, especially those which have been most widely adopted, adapted, and consequently distorted by our culture’s prevailing secularism.

 

Halloween, an essentially Paschal holy day, represents an unsurpassed opportunity for the lay faithful to express devotion to God through the veneration of all his saints. The good to be done is evident, as is the evil to be avoided: the saints are to be glorified, Christ’s victory over sin and death recalled. Anything which detracts from the glory of God and His saints is to be avoided.

Hero for a Day

Indeed, it is difficult to think of a holy day more distorted by secularism than Halloween. The authentic spirit of the day has long-since been driven out of most places. Viewed by many as “a time for the children,” the young typically seize the opportunity to dress as some “hero” from a favorite film or television series, often with the encouragement of parents, teachers, and mentors. Whether child or adult, enveloping oneself in such a costume means adopting an alternative “I”, entering “into” or “becoming” the character imitated outwardly.

This newfound persona represents a whole ethos after which is fashioned a “new self,” a moral phantasm transcending the everyday and reaching for an ideal. To don such a costume is to incarnate the imagination, an inherently human and deeply spiritual act. What does it mean, therefore, when the young—and sometimes the not-so-young—adopt an array of non-Christian and anti-Christian personas for their Halloween festivities? So-called “Gothic” costumes worn by trick-or-treaters and party-goers commonly evoke the Grim Reaper or even graver post-mortem fears.

Young adults clinging to the secularized “Halloween” of their childhood doff the attributes of superheroes (cape, sword, headband) in exchange for some daring or risqué ensemble, a fancy suit with fedora and innuendo or some scandalously avant-garde frippery.

Halloween today more often points towards a proleptic anticipation not of beatitude, but instead its opposite, the second death.

Props such as scythes and skulls have historically recalled our mortality and Christ’s victory over death. A fresco by Giusto de Menabuoi in the Baptistery in Padua, for example, depicts our Lord as the prototype of the Reaper, as “one who looked like a son of man, with a gold crown on his head and a sharp sickle in his hand” (Revelation 14:14).

Smashing Pumpkins

If Catholics are to reclaim the authentic meaning of Halloween for all ages by making a genuine religious observance on All Hallows Eve, the first step must be to recognize and reject the secularization of the feast, the second step to think creatively about ways in which to recover the evening’s authentic devotional festivity.

The process of cultural recovery begins of course with the word “Halloween” itself, its history and what it signifies. The verb “to hallow” means “to make holy” while the word “e’en” derives from a shortening of the word “evening” in a phenomenon called syncope. Those who have been “sanctified” or “made holy” are God’s “hallowed ones,” “holy ones,” or “saints.” “Hallow-e’en” or “Hallows’ Eve” thus refers to the “Eve of All Hallows,” that is the Eve of All Saints Day.

Observed as a holy day of obligation in parts of Western Europe from as early as the year 835, the Feast of All Saints has for centuries begun at vespers on the evening prior, October 31, following the custom of all Sundays and solemnities. Halloween thus announces the earliest possible celebration of the Solemnity of All Saints, a devotional response to a largely pagan world.

Like many feasts on the liturgical calendar, Halloween is an instance of syncretism, the intentioned consecration to God of a formerly pagan festal celebration. The Old Celtic calendar had observed November 1 as the first day of the year, which made October 31 the Old Celtic calendar’s “New Year’s Eve,” a “night of all the witches.”[1] In order to turn the attention of the faithful towards God and away from divination, astrology, clairvoyance, magic, sorcery, occult powers, and spiritism (see Exodus 20:1-3, Deuteronomy 5:6-7, and CCC 2115-17), the Church situated the Solemnity of All Saints in a manner which would turn the evil of pagan culture to some good. No longer would the evening be devoted to “all witches” or “all evil ones”; instead October 31 would be dedicated to All Saints.

 

Costume Customs

The custom of dressing up for Halloween has a devotional dimension which, when undertaken with thoughtful intentionality, can aid in recovering Halloween’s authentic meaning. By dressing up as the saints whom they most admire, the young begin to consciously follow the saints’ example of Christian discipleship. The alternative “I” of Halloween costumes presents a golden opportunity for the young to appropriate devotion to particular saints whose witness they admire.

Nourished by continuous reading about the lives of the saints, children naturally pick a “favorite.” Dressing in festive commemoration, they fashion themselves after historical witnesses of real life in Christ. Transfigured thus, they become “living icons” or tableau vivant of those who have testified to the Christian faith not in fiction but in history and in truth.

By imitating the saints, Christians young and old make discipleship their own in a special way, following the exhortation of St. Paul who adjures the Corinthians, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). St. Basil the Great extends this logic to the lawful veneration of images, writing, “the honor rendered to an image passes to its prototype,” to which he adds, “whoever venerates an image venerates the person portrayed in it” (CCC 2132). Proper veneration of the saints naturally leads to adoration of the Lamb who was slain (Revelation 5:12), whom all the saints adore (Revelation 7) and whom the 144,000 virgins joyously follow wherever he goes (Revelation 14). By imitating their witness, true devotion to the saints leads us sinners back to Christ.

 

A trick-or-treating child dressed as a saint (at left, versus a grisly ghoul at right) will certainly be asked, “And who are you supposed to be?” This question invites the young to bear witness to God by succinctly teaching the uninitiated about the lives of the saints. (Do you know who this saint is?)

Props for Death

Standing in sharp contrast to popular culture’s secularized observance of Halloween, even the customary appeal to the “frightful” has a devotional counterpart in the Catholic tradition. Props such as scythes and skulls have historically recalled our mortality and Christ’s victory over death. For example, a fresco by Giusto de Menabuoi in the Baptistery in Padua depicts our Lord as the prototype of the Reaper, as “one who looked like a son of man, with a gold crown on his head and a sharp sickle in his hand” (Revelation 14:14).

Appropriately for the history of Halloween, whose antecedent coincided with an Old Celtic harvest-festival, the Christianization of the feast features a harvest. For “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit” (John 12:24; cf. Matthew 13: 20-30, Revelation 14:14-20), and “those who sow in tears will reap with cries of joy” (Psalm 126:5). The “reaper” of the Gospel therefore is Christ himself and the “harvest” consists of the souls of the blessed, the souls of all saints. The saints are the “wheat” which Christ separates from the “chaff” (Matthew 13:30).

Halloween’s macabre accoutrements ought to remind us to be holy because we are destined for judgment (Revelation 14:15). The Letter to the Hebrews exhorts us faithful to prepare for the account which we must render at the hour of death (Hebrews 9:27). Halloween’s visibly grim reminders of mortality therefore ought to elicit our devout attentiveness to the last things—death, judgment, heaven, and hell (CCC 1020-65)—while at the same time reminding us of Christ’s ultimate dominion over all. When the dead are raised, they will be “clothed with incorruptibility” (1 Corinthians15:50-54), for “Dying [he] destroyed our death, rising [he] restored our life” (Missale Romanum, option for the Mysterium Fidei).

 

Macabre Façade

While the so-called “Gothic” aspect of Halloween might originally have been intended to remind us of our belief in the resurrection of the dead, the first-fruits of which have been glimpsed in Christ’s victory over death, our wayward culture has dislodged Halloween’s outward symbols of our mortality from their original source. Thus, today’s typical observance obscures the meaning of Halloween itself, or, worse, devolves once again into an essentially pagan festival.

Separated from Catholic teaching, grim or ghoulish costumes can be mistaken for, or can even become in reality, veneration of evil or of death itself. Those who dress as miscreant spirits without reference to the resurrection and Christ’s dominion over death draw near to idolatry by embodying attitudes “incompatible with communion with God,” namely by revering something “in place of God…power, pleasure, race, ancestors, the state,” or, in this case, the macabre per se or death itself (cf. CCC 2113).

Death glorified, death apart from its subjection to the Paschal Mystery, death apart from Christ’s victory over death, is not death properly considered from a Christian standpoint. Christ has conquered death, as has been prophesied and fulfilled, “Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55; cf. Hosea 13:14). By his passion, death, and resurrection, by his Paschal Mystery, Christ’s victory over sin and its wages, death (Romans 6:23), has made available to us some share in “the lot of the saints in light” (Colossians 1:12).

Animated by faith and hope, Christians bear a great love for the saints and seek to imitate them precisely because the graces available to them are the very graces available to us all. The saints embody the faith and give us hope that the love of God can overcome every stumbling block (Greek scandalon) which comes between us and the opportunity for beatitude through life in Christ.

 

Praise without Disguise

As we draw near to the Feast of All Saints and its joyous anticipatory celebration on Halloween, we turn at long last to the question of how best to keep holy this vigil and its feast. As the Second Vatican Council has affirmed in Sacrosanctum Concilium, “Popular devotions of the Christian people are to be highly commended, provided they accord with the laws and norms of the Church…; these devotions should be so drawn up that they harmonize with the liturgical seasons, accord with sacred liturgy, are in some fashion derived from it, and lead the people to it, since, in fact, the liturgy by its very nature far surpasses any of them” (13).

Halloween, an essentially Paschal holy day, represents an unsurpassed opportunity for the lay faithful to express devotion to God through the veneration of all his saints. The good to be done is evident, as ishe evil to be avoided. The saints are to be glorified, Christ’s victory over sin and death recalled. Anything which detracts from the glory of God and his saints is to be avoided.

Because “praise is fitting for loyal hearts” (cf. Psalm 33:1), let us resolve this Halloween and Solemnity of All Saints to express in every detail of our cultural observance—in each activity, craft, song, skit, celebration and costume—the beauty and theological profundity of this great feast, witnessing in our very lives the words of Pope St. John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae (82): “In the proclamation of this Gospel, we must not fear hostility or unpopularity, and we must refuse any compromise or ambiguity which might conform us to the world’s way of thinking (cf. Romans 12:2). We must be in the world but not of the world (cf. John 15:19; 17:16), drawing our strength from Christ, who by his Death and Resurrection has overcome the world (cf. Jn 16:33).”

Those who refuse to compromise the essence of Halloween naturally proclaim the Gospel and become apologists along the way. For instance, arranging for a day off of work on November 1 naturally invites questions, and those questions can be answered with confidence: “As a devout Catholic, I observe the Solemnity of All Saints as one of the holiest days of the year.” If time off of work isn’t possible, praying Evening Prayer I or II from the Liturgy of the Hours, in addition to attending Mass, witnesses strongly to sanctity of the day.

As for the youth, trick-or-treating children dressed as saints will certainly be asked, “And who are you supposed to be?” This question invites the young to bear witness to God by succinctly teaching the uninitiated about the lives of the saints. In smaller intentional communities such as families, schoolrooms, parishes, and catechetical programs, costume parties and competitions easily become the locus of the New Evangelization. The top prize in a contest might go to the one who tells best the short vita of their saint, or perhaps to the boy who has represented most realistically St. Francis’s stigmata, or maybe to the girl who has remembered to sew the Star of David upon the identifiably Carmelite habit of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.

Even adults can get in on the act—literally—by performing skits which both teach and delight. For actors and actresses alike, dressing up at Halloween reminds us of one of the most profound truths of the Christian life, that “in order to become what you are not, you must go by a way in which you are not” (St. John of the Cross, “Diagram of Mount Carmel”). All the saints knew this, that “whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for [Christ’s] sake and that of the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:35). If we’re not willing to consecrate our Halloween, are we really willing and ready to dedicate our entire lives to Christ, whether in season or out of season?


[1] s.v. “Halloween,” The Compact Edition of The Oxford English Dictionary, 2 Vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971).

Dr. Marcel Antonio Brown

Dr. Marcel Antonio Brown

Dr. Marcel Brown is a Faculty Member and Co-founder of Tulsa's Theological Institute. He holds his B.A. in English from the University of Dallas and his M.A. and Ph.D. in English from The Catholic University of America. A scholar of the York Cycle who specializes in Catholic themes in literature, Dr. Brown resides in Oklahoma with his wife and their eight children.