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Halloween II: A Catholic celebration Print E-mail
Guest column
Fr. Steve Grunow

In the spirit of the upcoming All Hallows Eve, a.k.a. Halloween, Word of Fire staffers fired some questions at the walking encyclopedia that is Fr. Steve Grunow. He responded with everything you ever wanted to know about Halloween and its deeply Catholic roots.

This article is the second in a three-part series.

Question: What is the relation of Halloween to All Saints/All Souls? Which came first?

Father Steve: All Saints Day appears to have a more ancient genealogy than All Souls Day.

The practice of a festival day to honor the whole Communion of Saints, rather than that just a single saint, seems to happen for the first time in the Catholic Church with the consecration of the Pantheon as a public place for the Church's worship. This happened in the year A.D. 609 (or A.D. 610) on May 13.

The Pantheon had been originally dedicated for the use of Roman religion as a place where all the gods would be honored. St. Boniface displaced the images of the gods from their shrines and gave the building over to the saints of the Church, particularly the martyrs.

This was a kind of "in your face" to pagan culture. St. Boniface was saying that the old gods had been defeated and were defeated by the faith of the Church's martyrs.

Also, May 13 was a day associated in Roman religion with what was called the festival of the Lemurs or ancestral spirits. It is likely that St. Boniface's choice of this day to claim the Pantheon for Christian worship was intentional, and it was a way of saying that the martyrs are the great ancestors of all the baptized.

All Souls Day (celebrated November 2) seems to emerge with the growth and spread of monastic communities and the practice of commemorating deceased members of monasteries. This practice gained broad cultural traction and in time was extended to the whole Church.

Halloween is the precursor to All Saints Day, it is kind of like what December 24 is to Christmas Day. Remember, the calendar of the Church is filled with festival days, all of which were once associated with great, public celebrations.

A holy day of obligation has not always meant spending 45 minutes in church for Mass and then going back to work. Holy days were times for a party, and if you look at the Church's calendar, past and present, with this ethos in mind, you will discover that the reasons for a party happened with great frequency.

Halloween is a Catholic party

Question: I know that there are some Celtic or Germanic elements to the holiday that we've come to embrace as Halloween. Which traditions are Catholic and which are not?

Father Steve: The festival is not ethnic or nationalistic. It is Catholic. Certainly there were regional appropriations of the festivals of the Church, and Halloween was no exception, but these festival days belonged to the Church as a whole, which meant pretty much all of Europe. You might have some customs that were specific to regions, but the festival itself is a distinctly Catholic practice.

There are some folks that have come to believe that there is some association of Halloween with a pagan festival called Samhain, but I have come to understand that this association is more coincidental than actual.

In terms of customs that are specific to Catholicism, it is all pretty much derivative from the kinds of stuff that you find in the public festivities of Catholic culture. In this regard, Mardi Gras is probably the best point of reference.

We think of Mardi Gras and its attendant festivities as specific to one day, but it used to be that that kind of festival environment occurred with great frequency throughout the Church's year.

Think of all the customs associated with Halloween as a Mardi Gras before All Saints Day, and I think you get a perspective in regards to all the excess and tomfoolery.

The party was meant to culminate in solemn worship, after which one returned to the routine of life. Unfortunately, the Church has surrendered the party to the secular culture. It has happened with Halloween. It is happening with Christmas.

Question: What do you think of the trend of parents boycotting Halloween on account of it being evil? What would you say to them if they told you such? Not safety or healthy concerns keeping kids indoors, but abject opposition to something believed to be satanic or terrorizing?

Stop hiding and  start celebrating

Father Steve: There is a lot that is unsavory about the contemporary celebration of Halloween. What does the singular focus on violence, horror, and death say about our culture? The traditional, Catholic Halloween placed these realities within the context of Christ's victory over sin, death, and the devil.

The current secularized version of the festival has no salvific content and has been loosed from its theological moorings. It looks very much like a festival of death for a culture of death, and for that reason, I can see why parents might be concerned.

But what is the proper response to a culture of death? To lock the Church behind closed doors or to let her out into the world?

I think it is time for Catholics to accept the religious liberties that this culture claims to afford them and go public with their own festivals -- and to do so with dedicated public fervor.

What is holding us back? What are we afraid will happen? The reticence and fear that characterizes Catholics is costing the Church its unique culture, and it is allowing the culture of death to flourish.

Halloween should not be a day when our churches go dark and Christians retreat into the shadows, but when we fill the darkness with Christ's light and go out into the culture, inviting everyone to the prepare for the festival of the Saints with all the joy we can muster.


Fr. Steve Grunow is the CEO of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. Learn more at www.WordOnFire.org