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Should Catholics participate in Halloween festivities?

September 12, 2011 by  
Filed under Fr. Bartunek, General

Some parents at the Catholic school where my child attends want to have a Halloween Party. I am really troubled by this. To me it seems clearly antithetical to our faith to celebrate a pagan ritual rooted in the idea that sacrifice to demonic spirits would ward off their punishment. Even if the meaning is watered down to mere costume wearing at this point, the practice still celebrates evil and minimizes its dangers and realities. Am I on target here or do I just need to relax and let this happen?

Let’s start by making some practical distinctions, and then reflect on the spiritual principle touched on by this question – a principle that comes into play more often than just on Halloween.

If the proposed Halloween party is to take place at the Catholic school, it is perfectly reasonable to be concerned. If the proposed party is to take place at the family’s house, your indignation should be a bit less strident, I would imagine, and should be mixed with compassion for this couple that may not be as educated as you are in the Catholic faith. In the second case, your reaction will depend on the quality of your relationship with that couple. If you know them, you may want to approach them to talk about it – after all, their idea of a Halloween party may have no relationship to demonic sacrifices or celebrating evil. If you don’t know the couple, you may want to make this an occasion to introduce yourself, or you may want to simply make sure your own children understand your concerns and have clear ideas about Halloween.

In any of the above cases, however, your goal should be to build momentum at the school to celebrate All Hallow’s Eve (an earlier name for “Halloween”) in a Catholic way. Kids like Halloween. If you appear to be stomping on their fun for religious reasons, you could easily created the impression that the Catholic faith leaves no room for fun. Bad (and wrong) idea.

Catholic Halloween?

So, what is the Catholic way to celebrate All Hallow’s Eve?  When the Church’s Solemnity of All Saints was moved to November 1 (back in the ninth century), it gave Catholics a chance to baptize an ancient pagan tradition. The Celtic peoples used to celebrate their New Year on November 1, and they believed that the spirits of the dead, both good and evil, wandered earth again the night before.  To protect themselves from those spirits, they had ceremonies involving costumes and fire – lighting bonfires to keep the ghouls away, and wearing sacred masks to scare them, for example. A later Roman tradition (pagan Rome) added trick-or-treating to the Celtic practice, as the Romans celebrated the harvest at the same time.  (More fun facts and a more detailed history can be found at this resource list.)  Baptizing these pagan customs simply involved interacting with the dead from a Christian perspective instead of a non-Christian one. And so, on November 1 we honor and ask for intercession from the saints – the dead who died in friendship with Christ and are now in heaven – while on November 2 we pray for the souls in purgatory – the dead who died in friendship with Christ but are still being purified from selfishness before they can enjoy the fullness of communion with God.

It isn’t hard to give a Halloween party a Christian spin, when this is understood. Costumes can be those of saints. Treats can be related to heaven.  Games can be fun, celebrating the hope for eternal life…

Creative Evangelization

And that brings us to the spiritual principle at work here. As the Church expanded into pagan lands, Christians had to figure out how to communicate their faith to people with radically different world views. Almost always, the most fruitful interaction was that in which the Christians were able to find some seeds of truth or beauty in the pagan practices, embrace them, and show their more complete meaning in the Christian context. In other words, whenever missionaries met the pagans where they were at, the pagans more easily learned to understand and appreciate the Christian faith. On the other hand, when the Christians met pagan customs only with blanket condemnation, progress was harder to come by.

Let me quote Pope St. Gregory the Great’s advice to missionaries in seventh-century England in this regard (just so you don’t think I’m making it up):

Do not destroy the pagan temples, but instead sprinkle them with holy water, set up altars in them, and place relics there. In the places where it has been the pagan custom to offer sacrifices to their diabolical idols, allow them to celebrate Christian festivals instead, in another form, on the same date. For example, on the festival of the blessed Martyrs, have the faithful make bowers of branches, and organize love feasts there. In permitting the converted these external pleasures, the joys of the soul will be more easily acquired. We cannot wipe the whole post from these savage souls all at once. A man does not climb a mountain in great bounds, but by taking slow, steady steps. (Letter to Miletus, 601)

Today we are missionaries in a neo-pagan culture, in many ways. If we want to bring Christ’s wandering sheep back into the fold, we need to follow the same pattern of creative evangelization. I hope you can do so this upcoming Halloween.

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at RCSpirituality.org, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at SpiritualDirection.com.

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  • $1650412

    I wholeheartedly agree here! Thanks Father! I think we sometimes are surprised when things that seem so clear to us confound other Catholics.I am trying to take to heart a message I once heard in a homily not to let anything that might disappoint me in my faith context, to surprise me- but to be delighted in those moments rather when what seems like a higher more heroic path is commonly agreed upon. And in the challenging moments to see the clever hand of the Lord offering me a puzzle- can you love these of mine to a deeper level of commitment to Me in My Name on My Behalf and for My Sake?

  • Cara

    Thank You! We are having a hard time dealing with the issue of how much to exactly tell parents on this subject as our parish is having a “Saints and Angels” party to mark All Saints. St. Gregory’s words will be welcome in the debate, it is very easy to forget who we are evangelizing to.

  • SAE

    So what if your child wants to dress up as a cartoon character (ie, Buzz Lightyear, The Lion King, etc)?

    • Kristian Lansangan

      Who we teach our children to look up to on all saints day has worth and meaning. Why add confusion by celebrating this day with dressing up as Buzz Light Year.

    • Susan

      To my kids, Halloween is entirely about dress-up and candy, two of the kids’ favorite things. So we do that–no dress up of anything evil, no decorations of evil things (a few pumpkins OK, they’re growing the yard!)–and then explain the real meaning of All Hallows Eve and make a big deal of All Saints Day and All Souls (our Church has a Saints’ party we go to). All to say, I would be OK allowing my kid to dress up as the Lion King for the walk around the block getting candy from neighbors, in that situation. But we try to suggest other things (like what do you want to be when you grow up things).

      Another thing to fold in to All Hallows Eve is the Mexican tradition of the Day of the Dead. Explain the Catholic meaning behind it.

      It’s all a teachable moment to me, I guess. But keep kids away from the playing with evil stuff.

  • Rita

    What to do when the parish serves up “Carnival” as one of their biggest fundraisers. Carnival takes place in the Catholic school gym with gambling tables and drinks. (Beer, etc. included.) Maybe 2 in RCIA.
    Is it any wonder? Protestant converts are scandalized. I was.

  • lc

    I just came into the church this year and I presonally disagree. This came up a few years ago in my home and I did a ton of research and prayer. I went on witchcraft sites and listend to those who practiced it. They look forward to this night and another in May. They are up all night praying to Satan, calling on their spirits. So for me, I just rather not participate in a night that is one they look forward to. I know all the history and “how” it can look to others, but I do not like my children out in this atmosphere-sorry.

    • Dear Friend, I may be wrong but I suspect you misunderstood the post. You might read it again. I think you will find that we agree that Catholics should not participate in Halloween.

  • To all who were wondering – yes, this was a post from last year – thought I would repost it since we have thousands more subscribers since then – good stuff.

  • Kathy

    When I was attending Catholic grade school in the 1950’s, we always had a Halloween costume party. Also, my parents, who were strict Catholics, always let my sisters and me go trick or treating. Never during any of those times did we ever think of celebrating a pagan custom or practicing witchcraft. We liked to dress up in costumes and we liked going around getting candy. I don’t believe celebrating Halloween ever hurt our spiritual life or our lives as Catholics. We didn’t think of things like that in those days. We just wanted to have fun. I think it is “much ado about nothing”.

  • In the Philippines, people visit the cemeteries with their relatives on November 1 and 2. There is no work on those days because they are holidays. Their is a festive atmosphere which turns the visits into opportunities for family reunions. just another suggestion…maybe people in other countries could try this too! 🙂

  • Elaine Northern

    thank you for Pope St. Gregory the Great’s quote. I give to an organization call Hands Across the World. Hands resettles refugees to USA- most are Moslems/Islam-These families experience- famine/War/genocide. 

    In St. Cloud,MN there was an old Catholic Grade School not being used- “Hands” asked to rent the facility. The Catholic Church there said yes and then realized all of the refugees were Moslem/Islam and would be praying to Allah, there in the facility, many times a day. THis Catholic Church really had to come to terms with their worship– with much anxiety and discussion. To shorten the story-The Catholic Church Community agreed to rent the facility/allow the refugees to practice their Religion.However ALL OVER THE FACILITY were- Statues/Pictures/Rosaries/Mary–many things/Prayers-ALL Catholic- in the Hallways and in their learning classrooms. This year, I  visited the facility on vacation – I did have some anxiety over this-when I left.  So THANKFUL was I to read today’s post- I am completely happy now. My Goodness I feel so free now by the Holy Spirit!This beautiful Catholic Church Community, who struggled over this same issue, DID what Pope Gregory DID. Not only that- when the funding for “‘Hands” got cut in half this year- this Catholic Church Community decided not charge rent and is paying the heat/air/electric bill- Pope Gregory YOU WOULD BE PROUD your Words given by the Holy Spirit are as timely today as they were in your time!

    • frozencold

      @ elaine northern

      With charity and sincerity, I have to ask if you honestly read the quote by Pope St Gregory? In the case you mention in MN, you mention these non-Catholics (moslems) rented an un-used Catholic school and let them “worship”. However, Pope St Gregory was clearly talking to Christian missionaries about the use of formerly pagan (recently converted to Christianity) sites and the prudence required when these missionaries assist new converts out of paganism by the use of maintaining some cultural guides, such as dates/feasts/etc.

      Yes – this parish did show Christian charity to the needy – that is clear. But, ironically, in your example it is the non-Christian (moslems) that are entering the Christian site. In otherwords, minus conversion to a non-Catholic “faith”, it seems the non-Catholics here are the ones following Pope St Gregory’s advice. So, no, I do not think that would have made him proud…more like troubled.

      @the original post….Saints Parties for kids are the way to go..great way to teach kids about saints! We go all out here on that and the kids love it.

  • Illinois

    Many insert brief pamphlets in trick-or-treaters’ containers when they come around.

  • ThirstforTruth

    This might be a very good time to teach our children that we are in the world ..but not OF the world. Dan, excuse me, I thought that the inclusion of the Pope St Gregory quote, was to demonstrate HOW we could INCLUDE  this holiday of secular (and worse in some cases) witin our Christian culture and by so doing evangelize. True, we should not send our children out trick and treating in witch or devil outfits, but it would be permissible to wear other suitable costumes, including Buz Lightyear.  A Catholic school, which is afterall a teaching institution for the faith, would celebrate the All Hallow’s Eve aspect of the holiday with costumes of saints for the younger kids …and parades and treats. Truly a time for celebration. For the older students maybe some treats but certainly the approach should be more cerebral…with perhaps assignments on the lives of the saints, a panel discussion on the Communion of Saints, etc I think the idea is how to inculcate the culture with Christian teaching…not to simply ignore Halloween as you seem to suggest in the comments. Perhaps I misunderstood your comment above. If so, I apologize. Overall, terrific article which I will forward to my Catholic School teacher daughter who has 3 children of her own.

  • $1650412

    I have the same sentiments about Halloween as the questioner, and I highly regard Fr.’s counsel here. I hate Halloween. It is at best a gluttonfest for kids (ok, my kids) and at its worst an overthetop flirtation with Satan himself, and that by the Roman Catholics! In my neighborhood, the folks with the most icky decorations in their yards are the ones with St. Francis statues and stickers on their cars for our local parish schools. Honestly. In the culture where every time we turn around the devil is winning in the latest horror/suspense flick- or if he is not winning then God is some mystery we can’t grasp so He is shrouded away from us while the sensual aspects of earthly life are the supreme good or the deprivation of them the supreme loss- we can’t really sit back and view any of this as benign. I think the course Father recommends is a balanced and helpful one, and I am a long time (25 years!) veteran attendee of All Saints parties instead of the creepy, icky, scary stuff. There are tons of ways to redeem this holiday. The one thing that is completely non-negotiable I think, in our time, is to assume that it is fine to just go along with the secular mind in their version of the celebration. The stakes are high, and the time is now, and if we want our world to be different we have to find our little, loving way to make an impact for Jesus Christ. The devil comes to steal, kill, and destroy us and our kids, and if we just play along like it’s not serious when it’s in our faces like Halloween is in your average American town, then I fear we will reap what we failed to sow.

    • Kathy

      When I was growing up, my sisters and I went trick or treating every Halloween. So far after 64 years, I am not in league with the devil nor are my sisters. To me, it’s something fun that happens only once a year, and all the times I celebrated Halloween, I never once thought I was celebrating a pagan ritual or rooting for the devil, and I consider myself a good Catholic. How do you think the devil got away with not ensnaring me in his trap all those years? Maybe it was that there was no evil associated with our trick or treating. We were just having fun and getting some candy for one day.

      • $1650412

        Kathy, it might be that in the time when you were trick or treating the world was a better place, than it was when I was trick or treating, or the way it is now. Or maybe my experience and observations are unique to me. I understand having a positive nostalgia for what was a benign good time as a kid- I am just highly pessimistic about that same harmlessness in our current culture. When the houses are decorated with menacing horror movie effigies or zombie like creatures or villains holding amputated or decapitated body parts of victims and bloody weapons in the yard, or coffins with vampire or witches in them etc. I find it hard to see this as wholesome. (Those are the Catholic homes’ decorations in my neighborhood.) All over my town are competing horror thrill events with graphic depictions of murder and mayhem where people pay for tickets weeks in advance. And a large sector of high school teen age women are currently enamoured in a cult following of a vampire-werewolf film series. I don’t  see this as harmless fun. Not when the kids I am teaching in Confirmation class are lying to get into the new Paranormal Activity flick; or have little clue that fornication is a sin; or that reading their daily horoscope is flirting with the occult and not only a sin, but a potential doorway on the path to demonic possession. 
        I wish the door to door, twilight candy-grab among the neighbors were all there was to it, but that is not my experience and I think that those gray areas are becoming spiritual shadowlands.

        • Becky Ward

          The devil’s favorite color is gray!!

          I love Halloween…….as the harmless old fashioned, a little bit scary, night of dressing up, having some fun and getting candy that I remember.

          This article is making me rethink though…..especially what you’ve mentioned about the vampire and werewolf cults……and how easily kids (and some adults) will lie about things………..this is scary.

          I’ve always been drawn to the supernatural, and in high school played with Ouija boards with friends…….I am SO grateful now for the grace that kept me from getting more deeply involved with things of the occult. Often we don’t realize how dangerous things like this are until it’s too late!

          • $1650412

            Becky- that was me too in middle school and high school early on. I was dabbling in a variety of occult activities and I was not from a solid, religious family. I was spiritually sensitive, but in a warped direction there for awhile, that ended in my complete abandonment of my Christian faith altogether for (thank God for His mercy!) a brief period of time. 
            And I was often oppressed by the devil (night terrors, nightmares etc.)- now, this is why I have the orientation that I do, which I realize is extreme to some. And I do think that my personal history makes a difference in why I am so adamant about some of this stuff. I think there was a time when you could counterbalance the influence of the enemy in the culture with a good, solid, Catholic upbringing like Kathy must have had, keeping all things in perspective. But I am not so sure this is the case anymore-  In so many areas we run into the assumption that as long as this or that seems to have no obvious ‘evil intent’ then it’s fine, but at the same time there is an insidious undercurrent of acedia infiltrating and obfuscating our sensitivity to the shift in western civilization toward relativism and secular humanism. Maybe it is just in my life, but I feel like I see it everywhere- and truthfully I am afraid. When I see Catholics, myself included, jump on the current of culture bandwagon for the sake of a good time; justify their hatefulness toward one another in the public forum under the guise of instructing the ignorant or admonishing the sinner; voting for prochoice politicos for the sake of social justice; and exposing themselves to degraded images and films because ‘objectively speaking, it’s art’ —- I revert to the adage about the duck- ok, if it looks like the devil, sounds like the devil, and feels like the devil…the candy isn’t worth it anymore- I’ll buy my own doggone Reeses’ cups!

  • Mardiaz02

    I need some help for writing this report for church !

  • Margaret

    Amen!! Great Answer and it’s just too bad that everything in the world today must be perversed in one way or another!! Nothing can be innocent or pure with pure intent!! If we would only teach our kids the history and put it in an instructive, constructive perspective how much better our world would be! It’s similar to the language we use today! For instance the word “Gay”! When I was a child Gay meant happy, spirited, fun, jolly! Today it means something so different and often used in a perversed way! It is up to us, we the parents to teach our children the correct ways. I had a friends when I was on the PTO at my childrens Catholic School and we tried to suggest the children dress up as Saints.. it didn’t go over well with the other members and Principal but we did take it upon ourselves as parents to dress our kids up as Saints and teach them the Christian Halloween Celebration! The example alone is what we set and it was a good wholesome Catholic example!!

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