In two weeks we celebrate Halloween— and, as you may have noticed, many of our Evangelical friends now shun America’s October spook festival altogether. They tell their children that Halloween is “the devil’s holiday” and that trick-or-treating is little better than dabbling with a Ouija board or consulting an astrologer.
Contemplating the Idea of Death
Though such extremism might seem odd or funny to many of us, it’s really, in one sense, quite admirable. If I thought Halloween was what they think it is, I’d keep my kids away from it, too — no matter how odd it might seem to others. But I’m afraid that if our separated brethren don’t stop for a moment and listen to some good old-fashioned Catholic wisdom on this subject, they’ll all be forced to become Jehovah’s Witnesses before long. And that, I think you’ll agree, would be terrible. Let’s try to spare them that fate, at least.
What exactly is Halloween all about?
Basically Halloween is our local manifestation of one of mankind’s oldest and most basic impulses: the impulse to contemplate — and even to celebrate — the idea of death during the fall of the year.
After all, the natural world itself dies in the autumn, and that death (along with our sure and certain hope of a glorious resurrection for it next spring) has always set human beings to contemplating their own impending date with mortality. The pre-Christian world was positively overflowing with these local death festivals. Whether it was the turning of the leaves along the Danube or the first frost on the haystacks of Burgundy, the pagans who lived in Europe before the coming of Christianity found something driving them to tell ghost stories around the end of October, to dress in creepy costumes, and to build bonfires against a new (and not entirely unpleasant) chill in the air. In some places, dances were held to drive away evil spirits; in others, it was believed that the shades of departed loved ones might take a holiday from Hades on this particular night, and could turn up at your doorstep for a spooky reunion.
Inculturation Is an Old Tradition
Before too long however, Catholic missionaries went to Europe from the East and preached the Gospel of Jesus to these cheery, superstitious heathens. Their fiery crusades against pagan idolatry are the stuff of legend: they inspired their converts to chop down the sacred groves, to smash their idols, and to turn instead to the worship of the one true God, Who created heaven and earth. But these missionaries had another quality as well, an attribute that’s often glossed over in hostile secular accounts. That attribute was empathy.
These early missionaries actually liked the people they were converting. They liked their folkways, and their culture. They liked their music, their dances, and even their local death festivals — or liked, at any rate, everything about them that could be liked without compromising the faith. Interestingly enough, we know from history that Pope Gregory sent his missionaries out with explicit instructions that anything in the local culture which was not actually incompatible with Christianity was to be left strictly alone. Today, we call this approach “missionary inculturation,” and most of us have realized that it isn’t really necessary for a Bantu tribesman to put on a three-piece suit before we allow him to come to church. We may feel very enlightened when we take this approach today, but the truth is that the whole evangelization of Western Europe (325-1100 AD) was accomplished under this principle.
This is the real reason why many Christian holy days correspond to older festivals from the pre-existing pagan calendar. The Europeans, for example, had many cherished family traditions surrounding their winter solstice festivals, and so the Church allowed them to incorporate many of these customs (Christmas trees, etc.) into her nativity celebrations. Likewise, Easter was already a spring holy day for the pagans, devoted to the contemplation of rebirth, new life, and resurrection. It was only natural, then, that many of these ancient customs found themselves gaining new and deeper significance under the reign of Christ, the true God of springtime and fertility.
The pagan death festivals were superceded in just this way by two Christian holy days based on a similar theme — All Saints Day (November 1) and All Souls Day (November 2). The pagans found it natural to remember their departed loved ones at this time of the year, and the Church wisely allowed them to maintain continuity with the old ways. To say, however, that the Church merely “Christianized” the existing paganism is to miss the point badly. As St. Paul dramatically points out in his Epistle to the Romans, paganism already had a good deal of inchoate truth in it already. What the Church actually did was to gather up some of these inchoate truths, sift out what was patently unusable, and then point the pagans to the final fulfillment of their ancient longings as revealed in the faith of Christ.
And yet Halloween isn’t quite All Saints Day, is it? Or All Souls Day. What is it then?
You might say that Halloween is an “echo-holiday.” Halloween is to All Saints & All Souls Days as Mardi Gras is to Ash Wednesday — sort of their outlaw second cousin. Halloween is that part of the ancient death festivals which couldn’t quite be comfortably domesticated. It’s the part that still wants to run wild on the autumn winds, to soap windows and overturn outhouses. And yes, like Mardi Gras, this urge is difficult decently to restrain at times; the sowing of wild oats often produces crops that have to be reaped by the whirlwind. But just because a thing is subject to abuse doesn’t mean the thing itself is evil — a principle that our Evangelical friends have sometimes forgotten when the subject was wine, and we ourselves have often needed to be reminded of when the subject was sex.
Yet it isn’t the puritanical aspect of Evangelicalism that causes me to worry about a possible descent towards the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It’s the knee-jerk response that Halloween is to be feared solely because it has “pagan origins.” The truth is that a good deal of what all of us do every day has pagan origins. The mathematics we use has pagan origins; our form of government has pagan origins; the very letters with which this sentence is written have pagan origins. In fact, most of the churches from which these anti-paganism sermons issue are, architecturally speaking, Greek revival temples in the “neo-classical style.” So “pagan origins” alone isn’t quite enough to damn Halloween all by itself. As a matter of fact, it’s one of the great glories of Christianity that it does save and redeem and baptize pagan things — ourselves included!
Jehovah’s Witnesses, on the other hand, profess to despise everything associated with our pre-Christian past. They especially despise the practices of the Catholic Church that redeem various elements of that pre-Christian past. They teach their disciples to hate and fear all holy days and holidays alike, and will have nothing to do with either Christmas or Easter for precisely the same reasons that Evangelicals are now despising Halloween.
And this is the reason I have found it worthwhile to mount, from time to time, a Christian defense of Halloween. Because one day — perhaps not too long from now — my own friends and relatives are going to feel forced, by their own careless presuppositions, to drop the other shoe on all holidays, to spend December without Christmas, and springtime without Easter, to go to a ballgame and refuse to sing the National Anthem.
If you find, as I do, that such a prospect makes your skin crawl a little, I hope you’ll join me tonight in soaping a few windows or turning over an outhouse or two. For truth’s sake.