Who’s afraid of Halloween

By  Manfred Von Vulte, Catholic Register Special
  • October 25, 2006

 When I was growing up I can remember being so excited about going out and trick-or-treating. Images of costumes that didn’t quite fit, reduced vision and streets full of parents accompanying their children to neighbours’ houses resound in my memory.

I can also recall several friends who were Catholic, Christian and some other faiths shunning this activity, citing its connection with evil. Being under the age of 10, I didn’t quite grasp that at the time, I always thought they were talking about the danger of cavities, finding a razor blade in an apple or being assaulted for candy. Now I know better.

However, the question of why this link exists to something sinister such as the occult or Satan has intrigued me for a while. Is Halloween the festival of dark forces and the glorification of Satan that many fundamentalists would swear it to be?

A cursory look at some of the ghoulish costumes would generate a yes. However, an examination of the celebration’s history denotes a more measured response. According to many historical sources, including the Catholic Dictionary, Halloween traces its origins back to the ancient Celts. The advent of winter and the Celtic new year was Nov. 1. The festival of Samhain, Lord of the Dead, was celebrated on New Year’s Eve. “Celts believed the souls of the dead — including ghosts, goblins and witches — returned to mingle with the living. In order to scare away the evil spirits, people would wear masks and light bonfires.”

When the Romans conquered the Celts, they added making centrepieces out of apples and nuts for Pomona, the Roman goddess of the orchards. The Romans also bobbed for apples and drank cider. In 835, Pope Gregory IV moved the celebration for all the martyrs (later all saints) from May 13 to Nov. 1. The night before became known as All Hallow’s Eve or “holy evening.”

Eventually the name was shortened to the current Halloween. On Nov. 2, the church celebrated All Souls Day. “The purpose of those feasts was to remember those who had died, whether they were officially recognized by the church as saints or not. It was a celebration of the ‘communion of saints,’ which reminds us that the church was not bound by space or time.”

Many Catholics I have spoken with have recalled moments in their parish and student lives when they had been encouraged to dress as saints or martyrs; the wonderful aspect of this was that all of the macabre costuming was still there and then some. Our saints and martyrs died in some truly horrific circumstances, holding steadfast to their faith in the face of unimaginable malice and certain death. One gentleman recalled seeing a boy dressed up as St. Thomas More with his head in hands. Yikes!

Christians should know that one of the pillars of our faith is the triumph over evil and death; it began with Lucifer defying God and being cast from Heaven, Christ rejecting His temptation in the desert and then as the originally worded creed denoted, “Died for our sins, descended to hell (modern: the Dead) and then rose again.” Being a Christian means recognizing that death is everywhere, but we should not fear it as we have been delivered from it by Christ and our faith in Him. Some would suggest that Halloween is in fact a celebration of this spiritual triumph; a mocking of the occult and a recognition that it is in no way equal to the power of God.

According to the American Catholic, “A later custom developed where people would go door-to-door on Nov. 2, requesting small cakes in exchange for the promise of saying prayers for some of the dead relatives of each house. This arose out of the religious belief that the dead were in a state of limbo before they went to heaven or hell and that the prayers of the living could influence the outcome. This may have been the precursor to Trick-or Treat.” As a priest once said to my students, “Have fun with Halloween, don’t take it seriously, and most importantly remember the solemnity of All Souls and All Saints Day.”

If we want to take the true “evil” out of Halloween, turn on our lights, accompany our children, be vigilant in our supervision and build upon our community by meeting a few neighbours. The seriousness of life and benediction of the honoured dead will, too, have its rightful place in November.

(Von Vulte is a writer in the Toronto area.)

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