On the Word on Fire Blog, Fr. Steve Grunow presents an articulate and historically fascinating defense of Halloween. It is true we have a complicated history with Halloween here in the United States. As Fr. Steve discusses, Protestant discomfort with Catholic style celebrating resulted in anti-Catholic propaganda condemning traditional holiday rituals as essentially pagan in origin. As more and more Catholic immigrants brought their papist celebrations with them, coming in conflict with puritan disapproval, holidays gradually underwent a homogenization that stripped them of their roots. No religious holiday in America has suffered more of a chasm between intention and actual practice than Halloween.
What we have now, more often than not, is a tasteless gore-fest, with most celebrants clueless of what they are celebrating. As Fr. Steve points out, “It looks very much like a festival of death for a culture of death.” The average Halloween store is full of such disgusting costumes and gag-inducing decorations that I wanted to shield the eyes of every child in there. In spite of this problem, we do not need to abandon our holiday to drunks in stupid costumes.
The idea of a sanitized solution like a strict saints-only costume rule and celebrations restricted to church basements on November 1st – to “catholicize” Halloween is not a good enough solution. The holiday is Catholic. We do not need to place a veneer of religiousness over a holiday that is ours in the first place. This solution also fails because it often ignores the core of Halloween festivities with their bold, head-on confrontation with Death.
People enjoy a certain amount of spookiness. There is a very basic explanation for this: loss and death is a part of the human condition and it is natural to be fascinated by a thing we can know so little about. Humans have always struggled to cope with the reality of death. The Church’s answer is the triduum of Allhallowtide: All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day which leads into November’s month-long dedication to the dead. The fact that the celebration of the dead occupies so much space on our Church calendar says something about its significance.
Keeping in mind that death is both unpredictable and undignified, the traditional celebration of Halloween has long included macabre elements such as skeletons and personifications of Death. Halloween has a great deal in common with Chesterton’s observation of fairy tales: “The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”
The reminders of death during Halloween had nothing to do with the current trite obsession with gratuitous gore and everything to do with tempus fugit, memento mori. Treating death with a certain amount of lightheartedness in such traditions as the 14th century’s danse macabre was to remind people dealing with terrifying civil wars and plague outbreaks that Death is not scary for a person looking forward to Heaven. To the modern mind, keeping human skulls around sounds morbid, but to the medieval mind it was a simple reminder of the inevitability of death.
As Fr. Grunow notes, Halloween is not an ethnic holiday, but a Catholic holiday, and nations with a strong Catholic culture maintain the purity of the celebration. For instance, in Mexico Día de los Muertos spans the triduum of Halloween, and its focus is on each family offering prayers for their dead through personalized alters and sugar skulls. There is even a special emphasis on dearly departed children and infants referred to as angelitos. The depiction of death made sweet through beautiful depictions of decorated calaveras (skulls), and calacas (skeletons) is a reminder that for the faithful death serves as the pathway to Heaven, thus the bright colors, dancing, and cheeriness.
Celebrations like Día de los Muertos are gaining popularity in the U.S. because the spiritual awareness gives integrity to the festivities that have been denuded of spiritual meaning. The only way to keep the integrity of the holiday is to retain its primary purpose: the unification of the communion of saints and a cheeky nod to death.
We Catholics are no shrinking violets, horrified by the gritty and the macabre, so let’s not pretend to be so around Halloween. Our Faith is defined by sweat, splinters, and blood. We are the Church that depicts our God bloody and dying on a cross in every church and our martyrs beatifically smiling through the instruments of their torture to remind us just how thoroughly Christ conquered death. We are commanded not to fear death, so we certainly do not have to fear insipid misappropriations of Halloween.