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I had to cancel next Monday’s class.

I had already asked my students: Out of 28, only six planned on showing up at all. The rest are either kept home by choice or by their parents.

The reason?

Halloween.

There are two very different reasons why: one, kids and parents are afraid of gang activity on  that night. It is, after all, the South Bronx.

Fair enough, of course. I wouldn’t want anyone to put themselves in harm’s way for any reason, much less a writing class on an open college campus.

The other reason is far more complicated: many students declare the day as “The Devil’s Birthday.” I’d never heard such a thing until I began teaching, but it is a widely-accepted belief.

For the record, not many of my students seem strictly religious – or even particularly observant – in an outward way. But the ones that do are varied faiths: Seventh Day Adventist, Muslim, Jehovah’s Witness, Baptist or Pentecostal. Some students are Catholic, a few are other denominations. Despite the differences in faith, though, they all believe that Halloween celebrates the devil’s birth – even the nonreligious kids. 

While it doesn’t make logical sense if any of these kids know the Christian teaching, it’s not a surprising belief to hold, given the pagan origins of Halloween. One theory is that Halloween was derived from  the Celtic celebration Samhain, the night wherein it was said the spirits of the dead returned to earth to wreak havoc on farmers’ crops. Another theory looks at Mexico’s Aztec culture, who celebrated The Lady of the Dead, which eventually became  El Dia de los Muertos.

In ancient Rome,  Feralia was the name of the day designated  to remember the dead. In fact, the tradition of bobbing for apples is said to have begun here, when the goddess of fruit and trees, Pomona, was honored as well.

 

Common ground

Although each culture seemed to have its own separate set of practices, there were two things in common: all happened on or near the last night in October, and all commemorated those who’d passed away.

All these theories give us some indication as to where the  supernatural element of  the night comes from. Samhain has an aspect – the possible ruin of crops – that might indicate why we designate one night for mischief. “Trick Or Treat,” the opposition of food (crops) to trickery (havoc) certainly makes sense.

In any case, if there are any origins to these practices, it seems rooted in nature. All the ancient cultures, being agricultural, ushered in the winter months with some sort of ceremony. The autumnal equinox, of course, is marked by longer nights, so a celebration at night makes sense. It’s also marked by the start of nature’s dormancy – a death, of sorts, to the lush greenery of summer – at least in the colder climates. Whether or not there is any real connection between the dormant period in nature and the rising spirits of the dead is unclear, but to my mind, it seems possible.

 

Scared students

But back to the present day: Do my student have a point in their thinking? In participating in this holiday, are we paying homage to its pagan roots? Is it best to avoid the whole thing?

Even if we are over the whole pagan idea, what are we really celebrating? Gluttony? Deception? Vandalism? What is trick-or-treating really about – thinly veiled threats of “make with the candy or I egg your front porch”?

Doesn’t it all seem a little suspect anyway? Even in its most harmless version – costumed children parading around – it’s become an expensive, self-conscious attempt at one-upping the next kid with the better costume. Where do we, as Catholics, draw the line? Should we draw lines in the first place? Am I taking this all too far, over-thinking it? (It wouldn’t be the first time!)

Although I grew up in a Catholic home, we did celebrate Halloween in the standard, watered-down, non-pagan way: We dressed up – the hobo look was the most popular and took the least effort, grabbed a pillowcase – as we did in the days before plastic pumpkins –went Trick-Or-Treating in the neighborhood, and returned home when the pillowcases were half-full. (We did have some constraint, after all!)

We were not allowed to eat a thing until our mother inspected our candy for the urban-legend-dictated razor blades, needles, cyanide, or whatever danger was all the rage that year. We were then allowed to choose four candies to eat that night, and the rest were dumped into labeled bags that went straight into the freezer. We’d eat our candy around the dining table, gossiping about costumes and house decorations, and after a while, we went to bed.

The next day, decorations came down  and we resumed our usual lives.

Because I went to Catholic School, though, the next day was a whole other celebration. Quite a bit of attention went toward All Saints’ Day. Interestingly enough, my school had us dress up as our patron saint every year. We then had to give a presentation on that particular saint, so it involved some research.

I don’t know if my school expected that we’d don our saint costume the day after Halloween as a substitute for not dressing up as a hobo the day before. No one ever talked about it. Besides, every last kid celebrated it, so it’s likely that even if my school didn’t like the idea, there was nothing they could have done to stop it. In fact, if I remember correctly, most of the costumes from the day before were somehow refashioned into the saint garb. A Dracula cape, for instance, turned into a priest’s robe. In retrospect, I’m remembering that all the St. Francis kids just re-used their hobo garb, which never seemed funny before, but now it makes me laugh.

I look back on it now and it reminds me of another two days in our Catholic calendar that emphasize the feast/fast idea: Mardi Gras, followed by Ash Wednesday. All Saints’ Day always seemed like such a somber, contemplative, serious day back then; and it came on the heels of a sugar-fueled romp the night before.

 

A Catholic loophole?

So is that the Catholic loophole? Is it OK for us to participate in a pagan-originated holiday if the next day is so, well, saintly-oriented? And at this point in history, do the pagan roots really matter? Are we better off keeping Halloween limited to a costume party? Leave a comment below and let me know your thoughts.

I plan on going to Mass for All Saints’ Day this year, but as far as what I’ll be doing  on the night of Halloween…well, check this blog next Tuesday!

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22 Comments

  1. David-364112 October 25, 2011

    This silly ignorance of the true nature of Halloween is ridiculous. It’s a Catholic tradition and we can enjoy it.

    • Cate-291547 October 25, 2011

      Now’s not the time for sugar-coating; come on, how do you really feel? Don’t hold back! ; )

    • Alex-382372 October 27, 2011

      Agree David even the catholic young adult groups are having halloween parties. I must be a horrible catholic if it’s bad to partake in Halloween I Work at a HAUNTED HOUSE AND LOVE IT. I plan on turning my own home into a home haunt when I buy a house.

  2. Pauline-729138 October 25, 2011

    I AM JAMAICAN WE DID NOT CELEBRATE HALLOWEEN, WHEN I WAS GROWING UP. BUT ABOUT 15YEARS AGO THE THIS CUSTOM STARTED IN JAMAICA BUT ONLY IN THE UPPER CLASS CROWD. I TOO WENT TO CATHOLIC SCHOOL WE DID HAVE ALL SAINTS DAY WE WENT TO MASS & THEN WHEN WE CAME BACK TO SCHOOL DID ROLE PLAY ON YOUR SPECIAL SAINT. I DO NOT THINK WE AS CATHOLICS SHOULD CELEBRATE HALLOWEEN.

  3. Lucy-41785 October 26, 2011

    (I guess I’m too cynical as to why the students aren’t showing up. I suspect some just want the holiday off. If given a chance or asked, I’D elect to stay home from work, because, well…it’s work, not a party or relaxation time.) I’m with David. I think the date of Christmas was also chosen as a way to replace a pagan holiday. Feel free to correct me, but I believe it was an easier way to help the pagans at the time begin to start using the Christian celebrations.

  4. Ramona-738757 October 27, 2011

    Although pagan in origin, Halloween, originated for the same reasons we as christians practice our faith today-to get rid of evil. The dressing up and treating was done by the poor many years ago for alms and prayers for the dead. A trick was played on a person who wasn’t generous in treating the poor or the giving of alms or prayers. Sad that with the sophistication of man today it has evolved into a celebration of evil than a pagan ritual to rid evil. Its up to us as parents and simply good christians to keep Halloween as it was intended.

  5. Jason-475494 October 28, 2011

    why exclud the children from the holiday just encompass it with the faith do a all saints day party that is what my friends do and dress the children up as saints and teach them thier faith take what is worldly and turn it into somthing that is holy. and yes i do enjoy the haunted houses and the holiday. it is about the children not about us.

  6. Jaime-556629 October 29, 2011

    Kids don’t know but adults is there other excuse to party drink yes mess around for that matter forget the expensive costume and just have your worldly fun Truth Hurts including myself gees were grown adults stop sugar coating and making excuses man lol

  7. Linda-666928 October 29, 2011

    Halloween PARTY IS THE DEVIL, no Catholic should attend.

    • Michael-462705 November 1, 2011

      I agree with Linda. Catholics and Christians should not be “celebrating” things which focus on the darkside, the occult, goons, goblins or monsters. Things like this do not “fit” who we are Christ –assuming you take Christianity seriously. I see no need to introduce children to such forms of “entertainment” and potential forays into goth and the occult later on like tarrot cards, fortune tellers and video games like Dungeons & Dragons. As Christians, we as believers have come into the light. I see no need to spend time (even for fun –if that’s what you call it) concentrating on the dark.

      • Mollie-649917 November 2, 2011

        Of course we should celebrate Halloween. It doesn’t give reverence to the devil; quite the contrary. It’s the ultimate way to stand ip to evil. To look at it and say “you don’t scare me” and I mock it as entertainment. Evil is only powerful if you fear it.
        So, Halloween is fun. But, for me, it’s for kids. How evil is a 3 year old in a monkey costume? Is Cinderella a threat to my religion? REALLY? A kid dressed as a mummy? In my 39 years, I have yet to have anyone try to convert me to the occult.
        As conservative as I can be, I’m not about Halloween. It is what you make of it.
        Loosen up!!!!

        • David-364112 November 3, 2011

          “Molly said:

          “It doesn’t give reverence to the devil; quite the contrary. It’s the ultimate way to stand ip to evil. To look at it and say “you don’t scare me” and I mock it as entertainment. Evil is only powerful if you fear it.”

          I wonder how strong is the faith of those who live in terror of evil and temptation. The devil is the loser. He (or she) has absolutely no power over us unless we allow it.

  8. Jean-776363 October 31, 2011

    Gosh, I just don’t give Halloween all that much thought… Can’t we just go back to what it was when we were all kids — a day to dress up in fun costumes and race around the neighborhood collecting candy from all your parents’ friends? I mean, it was a pretty simple fun holiday then — at least it was in the suburbs — it wasn’t a day with deep meaning or a day for much more dangerous activity than perhaps teepee-ing the trees outside the house of a girl/boy you liked… we didn’t even soap windows on garages of houses that didn’t give candy — we just figured if their lights were out, it wasn’t worth the effort to walk up the driveway…we ran home when our pillow cases of candy got too heavy, dumped the contents and recycled all the candy we didn’t like into our mom’s candy baskets and went out for more (always fortified with one of the ‘good’ kinds of candy our mom gave out…).

  9. Joanne-785600 November 3, 2011

    Yes I think Catholics should celebrate Halloween, as the very word Hallow means Holy and it is the eve and octave of All Saints Day, it should never be incorporated with new age practices but I agree it is a special day to pray for the souls who are led astray to be made saints one day.

  10. Michele-775467 November 6, 2011

    I’m so sick of this! I’m of Irish decent, so I think Halloween is great! Lot’s of candy and no relatives!
    Let’s be honest, fundlementalist Christians are just a bunch hyper-judgemental “spoil sports!”

    • Michele-775467 November 6, 2011

      When I taught second grade religious ed I asked the children to come dressed as a favorite saint. I brought some extra white sheets and some thick sticks for staves and draped them around kids (of course the girls didn’t forget) and let them choose which Apostle they wanted to be.

      One kid, Kevin (who had a brother named Patrick,) who’s mom was a teacher came as St. Patrick. His costume was spectacular! His miter had different cut outs in the shapes of gems with different colored cellophane jewels pasted behind the holes. And, he had emerald colored shamrock, and quite a nice little explanation about St. Patrick’s use of the shamrock in explaining the Trinity.

      • Michele-775467 November 6, 2011

        I meant “whose mother was a teacher…” Is there a way to retract a comment once it is made?
        I wanted to edit my last remarks but can’t figure out a way to do it.

      • Michele-775467 November 6, 2011

        I meant “whose mother was a teacher…” Is there a way to retract a comment once it is made?
        I wanted to edit my last remarks but couldn’t figure out a way to do it.

    • Michael-462705 November 8, 2011

      You said: “Let’s be honest, fundlementalist Christians are just a bunch hyper-judgemental “spoil sports!”

      That’s quite a comment coming from someone having been given charge to teach religious education to parish children.

  11. Karina-380517 November 8, 2011

    I dont think we should celebrate Halloween. Just saw a video in regards to this and an ex-satinist explained the meaning for them is them celebrating a new year and they make a sacrifice on halloween night and even if we are not satinist we are participating in this by dressing up or celebrating so we must not celebrate halloween what so ever

  12. Sarah-861751 June 7, 2012

    When my children were small, Hallowe’en was part of their Catholic upbringing: it was the eve of All Hallows, when they would go to church. They weren’t allowed to dress in an inappropriate way: black cats made out of bin bags was my usual thing: but they were allowed to have their friends round to bob for apples and eat doughnuts from a string. They were never allowed allowed to go to other peoples’ houses trick or treating but we kept a plate of cakes near the door to give to neighbours children if they called. The important thing for me was that Hallowe’en was seen in context as the Eve of All Hallows, which was part of the church calendar, when we’d go to church.

  13. Jennifer B. September 12, 2013

    I believe we should be “a light in the darkness”. We as Catholics should celebrate Halloween in a Christian manner, not promoting the evil and the darkness of paganism… but instead promoting God among this. I grew up dressing as a saint of some sort. Something holy. A family in my parish dress up as a nun, or priest, the “Swiss Guard” (guards of the Pope)… etc. They have said, whenever they walk through all those dressed up as demons, witches, and foul inappropriate things, the demonic dressers stop and stare the kids dressed saintly … probably thinking “wow”.

    This is what we are called to do… this is what Our Mother in Heaven has done… taken something that is celebrated in a pagan way or evil way, and consecrated it to God and celebrated it in a Christian/Catholic manner. She destroys the evil and vices of this world by altering it’s meaning to go “good”.

    Holy Mother of God, may we all unite as Your Son’s disciple’s in proclaiming the Gospel in our actions, and to be a light among the darkness. Lead us to Jesus. Amen

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