Hallowe'en is almost upon us again, and, as always, the debate over what devout Catholic families should do about the celebration comes up. Where, in old Christendom, every month had one or more feast-days replete with various para-liturgical customs, in modern America we retain exactly two: Christmas and Hallowe'en. The first requires no defense among Catholics, but the second requires explanation.
Firstly, though, let us look at Hallowe'en as it is popularly celebrated. One aspect remains unchanged from my childhood: children dress up in masks and costumes, go door to door trick-or-treating, tell ghost stories, and bob for apples. In the not too distant past, bon-fires and fortune-telling also formed part of the festivities.
More recently, costumes worn by adults to the office have come into vogue; moreover, various bands of neo-pagans, noting the celebration at the same time of the year by the ancient Celts of the feast of their god Samhain, lord of the dead, have re-paganized it so to speak.
Catholic families tend to have two different reactions to all of this, and to the general spookiness surrounding the night. The first is to blithely ignore the implications of observance, and send the children off with their friends. The second is to adopt the Evangelical Protestant view, dismiss the whole thing as Satanic, and keep the children in, resolutely ignoring the affair. Both reactions are equally un-Catholic, or what amounts to the same thing, wrong.
To begin with, every culture has at least one day given over to remembrance of the dead, to contemplating both spiritual evil and simple spiritual mystery. In Japan, for example, the three nights from the 13th to the 15th of July are celebrated as O'Bon, the festival of the dead. In front of temple altars and homeshrines, flowers and other offerings are laid out for the dead, and lanterns lit at nightfall to guide their ghosts home to visit. All sorts of frightening tales are told in the hot summer darkness, and the whole effect is quite as eerie as anything we do on the 31st of October. This universal interest in what may be called the darker side of things is quite natural: every people knows that Man must die, and unless they are corrupted by "modernity," they know that one way or another the souls survive the death.
This being key to Chirstianity, it should be no surprise that in Medieval Christendom, it was not only Hallowe'en or All Souls' Day when a spooky atmosphere was cultivated, but Candlemas Eve, St. Mark's Eve, May Eve, St. John's Eve, and St. Andrew's Eve. On those nights, it was believed that the world of ghosts and fairies, and the depredations of witches and shapeshifters, could spill over to our own. For most or all of these nights, every Christian nation had its specific customs involving the usual mask, noisemaking, bonfire setting, story-telling, and so on. In Europe, Latin America, Quebec, the Caribbean, and elsewhere, certain of these Eves retain their former importance.
Thus, the notion that Hallowe'en is of itself evil is untrue. While it was originally more popular in Celtic Europe, similar customs prevailed amongst Latins and Germanic folk on All Souls' Day. The empahsis was two-fold: protecting oneself from the powers of evil abroad on that night, and remembering (and in someplaces) even welcoming dead friends and relations back from Purgatory. The recitations of prayers for the dead, and the offering of Masses for the repose of their souls were the core of the observance; but in addition, the cemeteries would be visited, family plots cleaned, and even picnics held on them on All Souls' Day itself. In addition to these, of course, there would be the usual celebrations proper to the time. In Mexico, the Day of the Dead is a big celebration indeed; in Louisiana and the Gulf Coast portions of Mississippi and Alabama, the cemetery observances have been transferred to All Saints' Day (which is a state holiday in the first-named locale.) In rural Quebec, prudent people stay inside at night around All Saints' and All Souls'. Estonians observe, for about a month from All Souls', a period they call the "Time of Spirits," spent remembering the past and the departed, when the spirits are believed to be abroad. In Poland, as in Brittany, on the night of All Saints', the dead family members were invited in, and a place set for them. So it was, as so it is.
What ought first to be taught to children, then, about Hallowe'en, All Saints' and All Souls' is that it is a time to remember to pray for the dead in Purgatory, particularly our relations and friends. If you have Masses said for them on All Souls' Day, make sure the children know it. Further, teach them about Purgatory, indulgences, and the necessity of praying of the dead.
But what about the other half? What about the spooky stuff? Well, it too has a place. Take ghosts, for example, In the Ghost Book of Sir Shane Leslie, Sir Shane, a noted Catholic author, has a lot to say about the Church's traditional teaching on ghosts. Accordingly, we say that they come in three varieties: demons masquerading as the dead; damned souls; and souls in Purgatory, returning to right a wrong or deliver a message (as with Hamlet's father's ghost - without knowing about Purgatory that play becomes incomprehensible). There is even a Purgatory Museum in Rome, the "House of Shadows" at the church of Santo Cuoredel Suffragio, filled with items left, touched, or otherwise affected by such retumees. If you want ghost stories for Hallowe'en, look up Sir Shane's book.
What about fairies, then? Or witches? Well, both figure in the lives of certain saints and in Medieval legends. Of the first, suffice it to say that both St. Jerome and St. Joan of Arc believed in them, though beyond saying that they exist the accounts are contradictory. Of the second, the fact remains that to this day some people do bargain with the powers of evil, and receive some sort of activity in return. So too, this is a time of year to talk not just about Satan and evil, but the power of the Church in banishing them. Thus it might be good to give your children St. Benedict medals and scapulars, and explain to them, say, the prayers of exorcism at baptism and the use of holy water (for that matter, if you don't have one already, you might install a wall-stoup and fill it); moreover that the sacrament of Baptism cleansed them from original sin and took them away from the devil - forever, if they will cooperate with the graces of the sacrament. It might also be explained to them that usually Satan does not work through black magic or witches, but through the usual temptations. Usually, but not always.
In a word, for both your family and yourself, this is a period to make certain that the facets of the Faith, which we all too often ignore, come alive. A good way to reinforce this is to practice some of the old customs and eat some of the special foods usually identified with this time of year. As a start, some helpful books that are easily available on this topic are: A Book of Feasts and Seasons, Joanna Bogle (Morehouse Publishing); Customs and Traditions of the Catholic Family (Neumann Press); Catholic Traditions in Cooking, Ann Ball (Our Sunday Visitor); A Continual Feast, Evelyn Birge Vitz (Ignatius Press); and Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, F.X. Weiser (Firefly Press).
With these you have what amounts to a mini-library of Catholic religious customs, from which you might select whatever seemed appropriate to help your family (or even just yourself if you live alone) really absorb the meaning of the time. This is true not merely for Hallowe'en, All Saints' and All Souls', but all the feast and fast days of the Church year. Speaking of these customs in his foreward to Customs and Traditions of the Catholic Family, Fr. Edgar Schmiedeler, O.S.B. declares,
"Their simplicity and their beauty should make them appeal to all. And the ominous clouds of secularism of the day should make them appear peculiarly a need. For secularism, in so far as the home is concerned, is the absence of those practices on the family hearth. It is actually the rejection of the practice of the truth expressed in the words of the Psalmmist: 'Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.'"
But in a home so buttressed with authentic Catholic custom and tradition, the meanings buried but still remaining in the current secular practice of Hallowe'en will become clear to the child, even as you explain that going about trick or treating is the modern survival of visiting every house asking for a soul cake in honor of the Holy Souls in Purgatory. When he asks about the witch and devil costumes in the streets, you will know to tell him that they represent what the Church shields us from, and so on. It is indeed a good time of year to stop and reflect, for ourselves, that Holy Mother Church and the prayers of her Saints protect us from many an evil which we cannot see. In that spirit, then, let me wish you and yours a happy Hallowe'en!