Why Christians Should Celebrate Halloween — and Transform the Culture
The International Association of Exorcists sponsored a gathering in Vatican City on the last weekend of October in 2014. The organization was formally approved by the Holy See in June. The global press was enamored with the notion that the Church even recognizes the need for exorcists – or the existence of evil.
Coming as it did on the dates which involved the commemoration of Halloween, some press reports focused on the encouragement given to the faithful to have Christian children dress up as saints or good characters and reclaim the secular holiday, changing it into what the reports called Holy-Ween”
Much of the secular press, and some in the Christian press, missed the fact that the Church has always recognized the existence of evil. In fact, she offers the means with which to overcome and defeat it. She proclaims the Savior, Jesus Christ, who leads all men and women to freedom over evil, in all of its manifestations.
In addition, the Church has often taken secular holidays and, in a sense, “baptized them,” as a means of infusing the values of the Gospel into the culture. It is to propose this missionary approach to contemporary culture that I address this article.
I have long maintained that we are living in a new missionary age. Whatever remnant or memory there is of the Christian vision which once grounded the West is increasingly disappearing. That is why I suggest it is time to do to this secular holiday what we have done in the past to others, Christianize it.
I know that good Christians disagree with me about participating in Halloween. Christian periodicals, e-zines and blogs are filled with admonitions to utterly reject the celebration of Halloween. The reasons are multiple, but all are rooted in the fact that the contemporary celebrations of Halloween have become infested with darkness.
While I respect and understand the position, and even shared it to some degree in years past, I no longer do so. Let me share some of my reasons. First, a story.
Years ago, my sixth grandson and his mom, our youngest daughter, lived with us. As I write this article I am reminded of the Halloween when he knocked on my door while I was writing. I did not turn away from the laptop computer because I was trying to concentrate.
He called out in a deep voice “Poppi ” – the endearing name he has called me since he learned to speak. I turned around quickly and saw this wonderful little boy dressed up as his favorite superhero, the Incredible Hulk.
Having been engaged by him in numerous discussions during the week preceding that Halloween as to who would win in a battle between Hulk and another superhero, I knew that his dear mother had made this Halloween special.
I will soon turn sixty. But, I became almost as excited as I did when I was a child that year – as he prepared to participate in Halloween. His anticipation of visiting neighbors and receiving candy, dressed up like the Incredible Hulk, became the subject of a lengthy and humorous conversation.
He ran around the house for an hour dressed up like the Incredible Hulk. I delighted as he entered into that wonderful world of childhood play. All that week I had the joy of listening to him share his excitement about Halloween.
He and his mom, our dear daughter, lived with us for the first six years of his life. To be more accurate, we all lived with him. He filled our life together with his infectious joy.
He had the ability to “occupy the turf” of our home with the amazing little world he built under our roof. He always reminded me of the gift of childhood, a gift we should never lose.
He completely transformed our home – and our life. Family is a way of life and, when it is lived as a domestic church, it can be a source of real grace and conversion.
It is also meant to become what I call naturally supernatural. To be a Christian is not to deny our humanity. Rather, it is a new way of being human because we are made new in Jesus Christ!
Our grandson will soon be seven years old. He and his mom now live in the next city over. As the year has passed by, we love having him visit us and look forward to it.
He is still helping to keep me and my wife from getting old – in the wrong way. He is a continual invitation to us to keep life simple and receive every day as a gift. We raised five children of our own and we will soon have seven grandchildren.
Let’s consider the history of Halloween.
The term “Halloween” is derived from “All Hallows Eve,” the Christian Vigil of the celebration of the Christian Feast of “All Saints.” I will serve as a deacon at the altar for the Vigil Mass of All Saints Day. The beautiful readings at the Liturgy point us toward the perfection of the Saints in heaven and encourage us to become saints in our own journey here on earth – through living the words of Jesus in the beatitudes.
Like many Catholics – and many other Christians – I am concerned that the current approach to the celebration of Halloween, with its undue influence on goblins, ghosts and the demonic, presents potential dangers. All Christian parents and grandparents should act accordingly.
The increasingly dark emphasis of Halloween also reflects the waning influence of the Christian worldview in the West. Cultures formerly infused with a Christian culture are now regularly called post-Christian – and understandably so.
However, I suggest that the state of the culture also presents an opportunity for Christians to do what we have always done, live like missionaries in our own culture. I further suggest there is an alternative to rejecting any participation in Halloween. It is participating in a proper way.
Now, let’s consider how the Church has transformed cultures throughout her history- and find a way to do the same in the contemporary culture into which we have been sent on mission. The Christian Church has always recognized that cultural practices can be “mixed”, containing those aspects which elevate the human person and those which do not.
Members of the Church are invited to transform cultural practices from within through our proper participation. That has been our missionary model for over two millennia.Many of the dates on the calendar which were “Christianized” – and now host Christian “Holy Days” – were originally utilized for “Pre-Christian” (“Pagan”) celebrations.
This process of converting cultural practices reflects the wisdom of the Church and her faith-based missionary approach. The Church “baptized” them, recognizing the seeds of what was good and true within them. One of the better Catholic treatments of the subject of Halloween can be found here.
By immersing some of these celebrations which Christians found in the lands into which they went on mission in the beauty revealed in the proclamation of Jesus Christ and His Kingdom, the Church turned them into vehicles for transforming people and culture. She recognized the opportunity to infuse these days with the values of the Kingdom which Jesus inaugurated. Do we?
The Church is the Body of Jesus Christ. She is also meant to become the home of the whole human race. As the early fathers of the Church were fond of proclaiming, the Church is the world reconciled – the world in the process of transfiguration. We who live our lives in the Church do so for the sake of the world.
We should not be afraid of human culture; we are called to continue the redemptive mission of our Lord by transforming culture from within as leaven in a loaf. We are to be salt and light, the seeds of the kingdom to come, in a world waiting to be born again.
Halloween focuses many people on the reality of death – and the questions associated with contemplating death. In so doing it may open people to existential questions concerning the very meaning of life. This presents us with an invitation as evangelizers and missionaries.
I suggest that we live in a time which is ripe with possibility – for Christians who recognize the opportunity and are unafraid. The beautiful faith we have been given as a gift presents the answers to such existential questions. Death is not something we fear – because we know the One who has defeated death by death, Jesus Christ!
Let’s consider some of the practices of the early Christian church surrounding death. The early Christians always honored the dead – and had a special devotion and affection for the martyrs. We have wonderful accounts like the Martyrdom of Polycarp from the middle of the second century which set forth the practices:
Accordingly, we afterwards took up his bones, more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more pure than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, so that when being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps.
The Liturgy was often celebrated over the bones of the “holy ones,” the saints, who gave their lives in love for Love Himself; Jesus Christ the Savior. This is one of the origins of our practice of embedding relics in the altar to this day. Christians do not fear death. We view it with the eyes of faith as a change of habitation.
The dates of commemorating the memory of those who witnessed to the faith by their heroic lives and deaths varied as local communities honored local saints and martyrs. Over time, those feast days became more universally accepted as the rhythm of the Church Year became more uniform.
The first account we have of honoring all the saints on one day is from St. Ephrem the Syrian (d. AD 373). The great Bishop of Constantinople, St. John Chrysostom (d. AD 407), set aside the first Sunday after Pentecost for this commemoration. The Church of the East still celebrates the feast on that day.
In the Western Church, the date may have originally been on that date but was moved to May 13th. There is some evidence that the move to November 1 came with Pope Gregory III (d. AD 741), and was likely first observed on November 1st in Germany.
The Feast of All Saints is our family Feast Day – when we honor all those who have died, marked with the sign of faith, and gone on before us to be with the Lord. They now beckon all of us into the fullness of the communion of love.
The vigil of the Feast (the eve) came, in the English speaking world, to be known as “All Hallows Eve” or Halloween. While some consider Halloween to be “pagan” in origin it is actually the eve of this great Christian Feast of All Saints. Many of the customs which surround it reflect the Christian confidence in our triumph over death in Christ and our bold rejection of the claim that evil has any more power over us.
In a special way we commemorate all who have been honored by “canonization”, the process wherein the Church has acknowledged their extraordinary lives of holiness and holds them up as models and intercessors. This wonderful celebration is grounded in the most ancient of Church teaching concerning the Communion of Saints.
The Church proclaims that death does not separate us any longer because it was defeated by Jesus Christ. (Romans 8:28) We affirm and celebrate our eternal communion in Him – and with one another – through the Holy Spirit. We honor all of our brothers and sisters, known and unknown, who are a part of that great cloud of witnesses to which the author of the Letter to the Hebrews attests. (Heb. 12:1).
Just as we pray for one another, so those who have gone on before us pray for us and are joined to us forever in that communion of love. This ancient and firm belief is attested to in the earliest writings of the Christian tradition.
For example, St. Cyril of Jerusalem (AD 350) wrote: “ We mention those who have fallen asleep: first the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, that through their prayers and supplications God would receive our petition.” (Catechetical Lecture 23:9).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this communion in these words:
Being more closely united to Christ, those who dwell in heaven fix the whole Church more firmly in holiness…They do not cease to intercede with the Father for us…So by their fraternal concern is our weakness greatly helped….as Christian communion among our fellow pilgrims brings us closer to Christ, so our communion with the saints joins us to Christ, from whom as from its fountain and head issues all grace, and the life of the People of God itself: We worship Christ as God’s Son; we love the martyrs as the Lord’s disciples and imitators, and rightly so because of their matchless devotion towards their king and master. May we also be their companions and fellow disciples. (CCC # 956, # 957)
So, on the evening when kids throughout our neighborhood and adjoining neighborhoods walked from door to door, collecting candy, my grandson, dressed up like the “Incredible Hulk” and joined them. In fact, I went with him.
I know that some of my readers have made a different decision about their own children or grandchildren. I respect their decision.
Over the years that my wife and I were raising our children, we tried both approaches. As you can tell, one has now won the day.
When my grandson was done sorting through all of the candy and talking away about the events of the evening on that special night, I made the sign of the cross on his forehead and prayed a prayer which has developed over all those years my wife and I raised our own children:
“May the Lord bless you, fill you with His Holy Spirit, surround your bed with His Angels and give you peace.” He looked at me as he did almost every night and asked me to repeat it again saying “surround your bed with His angels?” in a question format.
I cherished that question because it called me to do all I can to help to form him in the Christian way of life. Now that he and his Mom no longer live with us, I sincerely miss it. Writing this article gave me a chance to call it all back to mind.
As for the growing pagan practices around us, I am not afraid of them. I will do all that I can to ensure that my grandson, in fact, all of our grandchildren, will be a part of a new generation of those who, bearing the name Christian, do what Christians always do, bring about the conversion of Nations and cultures.
I suggest that this is a part of what it means to be a missionary Church. We are all called to be missionaries. We live in a new missionary age. That is why I prefer to use the term Pre-Christian to describe the state of the West – not Post Christian. It is time to do what Christians have always done; lead the men and women of this age to living faith and transform cultures by the way we live our lives.
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