Every year, as a teacher, when Halloween approaches, I have struggled to thoroughly answer the question, “What do you think of Halloween?” Every year, then, I would research the traditions and history of Halloween and get closer to providing a more complete answer.
My wayward youth of enjoying Halloween for evil purposes, which was tied to the depression and anxiety that plagued that period of my life, conditioned me, after my conversion, to see many aspects of the American Halloween experience as evil.
However, it is actually the case that the macabre and the remembrance of the gruesomeness of death and death itself is not actually contrary to the spirit of Christianity nor the meaning and theology of ‘Hallowtide’ (All Hallow’s Eve through All Souls Day).
Death Brings Life
Salvation was offered to mankind as a result of the brutal death of God-made-man. Many of the great Saints who have changed the world were also brutally martyred. The death of Christ and the death of the Saints are remembered all the time, in artwork, in poetry, in books, and in hymns.
Death itself, today, though, is seen in a much different light than it was in the past. We fear and shun death, but at the same time celebrate it. We are an odd generation. We preserve our lives on this planet by any and all means possible, but we glorify death in movies and video games and celebrate it in abortion “rights” and the push for euthanasia against the elderly and unwanted. Death in the past, in ancient Christendom, was seen as a fact of life and not the enemy of mankind. Death was the seal of one’s life and the moment the door to eternity swung open. Death brought man to his end and to his judgment. Life was oriented toward death, for death initiated the second and final stage of life: life beyond the grave.
Catholicism and the fallen world both have a view and perspective regarding death. These two views are quite opposed to each other. A skeleton, for example, to a Catholic is a true and fitting reminder of the reality of death and the need to prepare for it properly. A skeleton, to the fallen world, is a source of entertainment for those who enjoy being scared, or it presents an uncomfortable reminder of one’s mortality.
A skeleton can be used by a Catholic to show he does not fear death, or by the fallen world to show he does not respect life.
What Has Halloween Become?
Today, though, what has Halloween become? What is “Halloween” if someone asks you, “What do you do for Halloween?” This is a very difficult question to answer and must be qualified based on the audience. With high-schoolers, this is even more interesting.
So, let us ask some important questions:
Is Halloween part of a Catholic feast day? Yes
Halloween is a derivative of All Hallow’s Eve, the Vigil of All Saints Day, the latter being a Solemnity and a Holy Day of Obligation. This is an ancient feast established by the Church in the eighth century. Therefore, this is truly a very special Catholic feast day – quite unique and important to all souls and therefore worthy of being preserved and even defended.
Is Halloween being used by Satanists and witches? Yes
Particularly today, in the age of the rise of the occult, Satanism and witchcraft make use of this day for evil celebrations. When you research this, it is important to remember that these two groups do not have a central organization. There are a loose band of similarly minded individuals. Many do get together and form alliances around commonly held beliefs and a lot of things are in common to all. However, these are not revealed religions and many aspects of them are less than two hundred years old. Modern witches do their research, though, and many incorporate the “wisdom of the ancients” into their practices. There is some evidence that Druids looked to October 31st as a special day in which the souls of the dead, and evil spirits, roamed the earth and the living needed to respond appropriately to comfort them or avoid their mischief. Bringing these concepts back to life in our age would surely be a way to corrupt what Halloween has become in the life of the Church.
Has it been corrupted by the intrusion of secularism into the lives of Christians? Yes
The rise of the occult is not the only threat to the sacredness of the public celebration of Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day. The secularization of most Christians is a major contributing factor. As concern for Heaven and belief in Purgatory and Hell have practically disappeared with the emergence of what Pope Benedict called a “practical atheism” among Catholics, any sacredness to All Hallow’s Eve would be completely lost. In the face of strong cultural trends which have nothing to do with Christianity, modern Christians will simply cave to the culture.
Saint costumes, which honor the Feast, give way to secular and innocent costumes, which have nothing to do with the Feast, leading eventually to occult costumes, which stand in direction opposition to the Feast.
At that point, there is no Christian ‘rhyme or reason’ for anything we do on Halloween.
Is Halloween clearly a Catholic tradition that has evolved over time and thus may continue to do so? Yes
The feast of All Saints and All Souls, and Halloween with them, has been an evolving Feast with evolving traditions for over a thousand years. Of course, the Feast is now solidified in the calendar, but the Catholic customs that spring up around Halloween are not. The modern custom of dressing up and going door to door for candy is the American version of former Irish and English traditions, as well as others. While it might resemble ancient Druid practices, it also, and more clearly, comes from the tradition of going door-to-door to exchange soul cakes for prayers for the faithful departed in that home. While dressing up like Saints may not be that ancient (my research was inconclusive), it is a fitting element to incorporate.
Is it appropriate to focus on death at Halloween? Yes
Death is the mysterious and often dreadful end of every human life. Death is what sends the Saints to their reward in Heaven. Death is what sends the faithful departed to their punishment in Purgatory. Death is what sends the sinner to his condemnation in Hell. Death must not be forgotten.
Tempus fugit – Memento mori! Time flies – Remember death!
However, when we remember death at Halloween, it must be in the spirit of Christian hope in God’s grace and the resurrection.
The Feast of Christ the King.
In 1925, Pope Pius XI established the Feast of Christ the King, placing it just before Hallowtide in the calendar. This Feast is a day in which we remember the end of the world and the judgment of mankind. Death and judgment, when depicted in art, can appear ghoulish and dreadful. The manifestation of it in art and costumes, while disturbing, helps secure in the mind the remembrance of death, essential to keeping our minds rooted in the ultimate end of our lives: death and judgment and the next life which we merit by our deeds.
As this Holy Father, Pope Pius XI, said in his encyclical, regarding the date of this Feast:
The last Sunday of October seemed the most convenient of all for this purpose, because it is at the end of the liturgical year, and thus the feast of the Kingship of Christ sets the crowning glory upon the mysteries of the life of Christ already commemorated during the year, and, before celebrating the triumph of all the Saints, we proclaim and extol the glory of him who triumphs in all the Saints and in all the Elect.
Nations will be reminded by the annual celebration of this feast that not only private individuals but also rulers and princes are bound to give public honor and obedience to Christ. It will call to their minds the thought of the last judgment, wherein Christ, who has been cast out of public life, despised, neglected and ignored, will most severely avenge these insults; for his kingly dignity demands that the State should take account of the commandments of God and of Christian principles, both in making laws and in administering justice, and also in providing for the young a sound moral education.
Liturgically, the famous hymn Dies Irae is sung on All Soul’s Day. It is all about death and judgment and the fear of that final sentence and where we might end up when our deeds are weighed in the scales of Divine Justice after the days of mercy dry up.
The “Dance of Death”
This may sound creepy to us today, but it is an ancient practice that originated in Catholic countries as a result of the constant exposure to plagues and death. This practice fits well with the Pope’s emphasis on remembering our judgment on the solemn Feast that comes immediately before Hallowtide.
The Dance of Death emerged in a time (mid 14th C.) of frequent epidemics and death. “In these plays,” the Catholic Encyclopedia states, “Death appeared not as the destroyer, but as the messenger of God summoning men to the world beyond the grave, a conception familiar both to the Holy Bible and to the ancient poets.”
It continues, stating,
The purpose of these plays was to teach the truth that all men must die and should therefore prepare themselves to appear before their Judge. The scene of the play was usually the cemetery or churchyard, though sometimes it may have been the church itself. The spectacle was opened by a sermon on the certainty of death delivered by a monk. At the close of the sermon there came forth from the charnel-house, usually found in the churchyard, a series of figures decked out in the traditional mask of death, a close-fitting, yellowish linen suit painted so as to resemble a skeleton. One of them addresses the intended victim, who is invited to accompany him beyond the grave. The first victim was usually the pope or the emperor. The invitation is not regarded with favour and various reasons are given for declining it, but these are found insufficient and finally death leads away his victim. A second messenger then seizes the hand of a new victim, a prince or a cardinal, who is followed by others representing the various classes of society, the usual number being twenty-four. The play was followed by a second sermon reinforcing the lesson of the representation.
Evidence for these plays has been found in Germany, Spain, Belgium, France, England, and Italy. Italy also had something known as the “Triumph of Death.” The following description is provided for what this event looked like:
After dark a huge wagon, draped in black and drawn by oxen, drove through the streets of the city. At the end of the shaft was seen the Angel of Death blowing the trumpet. On the top of the wagon stood a great figure of Death carrying a scythe and surrounded by coffins. Around the wagons were covered graves which opened whenever the procession halted. Men dressed in black garments on which were painted skulls and bones came forth and, seated on the edge of the graves, sang dirges on the shortness of human life. Before and behind the wagon appeared men in black and white bearing torches and death masks, followed by banners displaying skulls and bones and skeletons riding on scrawny nags. While they marched the entire company sang the Miserere [Ps. 50] with trembling voices.
These “dance of death” scenes were eventually painted on the walls of cemeteries, on charnel houses, in mortuary chapels, and in Churches.
Engravers dedicated themselves to the art of the “dance of death,” most notably Hans Holbein, whose works have been regarded as the most famous, and have been reproduced and reissued since they were created in the mid 1500s. Alfred Rethel, in the mid 1800s began producing similar dance of death scenes, such as this one titled “Dance of Death – Death as a Friend.”
Another example of the historical value of reflecting on death is seen in the famous Capuchin Crypt, which is filled, artistically, with 500,000 bones from both 3700 Capuchin monks from all over the world and the poor of Italy who were served by them. These bones were collected until 1870.
Why Do We Do What We Do?
A lot of the issues around Halloween revolve around the intention of the individual: why are we doing what we are doing?
Do we dress up like a skeleton in the spirit of the “dance of death” and memento mori – or – do we dress up like a skeleton to embrace a spirit of death and nihilism?
The surrounding context can help reveal the individual person’s intent and help children, for example, understand the reason for seeing things such as skeletons. Death is something that does not spare children, but they also do not yet fully understand it. That being said, they are capable, particularly with the aid of divine grace and the truths of Divine Revelation, of understanding death and preparing for it properly.
So, seeing death at Halloween is not offensive to Catholic sentiment, though it may need explanation to children.
But isn’t that why we have festivals, feasts, plays, Stations of the Cross, stained-glass windows, etc.? Are they not teaching moments and opportunities to learn about God’s will and ways, and the path that leads to eternal life?
Hell Faces Heaven’s Fury at Halloween
With all of the conflicting opinions on Halloween, one thing we can truly see is that the agents of Heaven and the agents of Hell are, today, clearly at war on Halloween.
When the Church of Christ, the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, is celebrating the victory of Christ who triumphs in His Saints and His Elect, Hell is more and more sneaking onto the scene to undermine this sacred work.
Hallowtide is not a time where Hell has more power, as many pagans believe – just the opposite – Hell faces Heaven’s fury in a particular way as more graces are made available to the faithful, such as the graces of the Holy Day and the plenary indulgences for the Poor Souls in Purgatory.
Hell, then, through the fallen world which embraces Satan and the occult, would love to distract Christians away from these graces and toward fear and the fright of hopeless death.
What To Do
Analyze your approach to Halloween. Purge what does not orient your family toward holiness.
Get creative with the “trick or treaters” who come to your door, to oppose the paganism they may manifest.
Reinvigorate the sacredness and Catholic creativity of the Feast.
Create new and sacred traditions, like this Vigil of All Saints [here and here]
Pray and go to Mass.
Do good. Avoid evil.
Invoke the Saints. Pray for the Poor Souls.
Painting: Danse Macabre by Bernt Notke (15th c.) in St. Nicholas Church, Tallinn.
This article first appeared on the author’s website.
Charles D. Fraune was the founding Theology teacher of Christ the King Catholic High School in Huntersville, NC and was a Theology teacher there for ten years. He now works full-time with his Slaying Dragons Apostolate, writing and researching on topics related to spiritual warfare. He has a Master of Arts in Theology from the Christendom College Graduate School, as well as an Advanced Apostolic Catechetical Diploma. He is the author of Come Away By Yourselves, a guide to prayer for busy Catholics, Swords and Shadows: Navigating Youth Amidst the Wiles of Satan, and Slaying Dragons: What Exorcists See & What We Should Know (also in Spanish). He lives in the Diocese of Charlotte, NC with his wife and three young children.