This Halloween weekend, Father Steve speaks about the connection between the celebration of All Hallows' Eve, All Souls' Day, and the ritual and tradition of the Catholic Church-- a connection which he explains has been largely lost. Read his commentary here.
We regret to inform you that this year’s Halloween celebration has been cancelled. Because the celebration of All Saint’s this year is preceded by a Sunday, the bishops of the United States have determined that the obligation to attend Mass this year on the Solemnity of All Saints has been abrogated. Given this fact the traditional festivities celebrated on the eve of All Saints Day (aka “All Hallows Eve”) are also no longer obligatory. We are sorry for any disappointment that this may cause, but there is always next year.
Of course, I am joking about most of this. Halloween has not been cancelled, and though the faithful have received a dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass on All Saint’s Day this year, the Church will still commemorate this great feast. The point of my jest was to highlight that the day called Halloween on which our culture commemorates not so much the saints, but ghosts and goblins, had at one point in time a much clearer and direct connection to Catholic observances associated with the Solemnity of All Saints. The Catholic origins of Halloween are explored succinctly in a wonderful piece
published years ago by Father Augustine Thompson OP. Despite the prevailing impression that the celebratory atmosphere associated with Halloween are pagan or demonic in origin, most of the longstanding customs associated with the day need no other explanation than being practices of the Church’s culture of public festivity-- festivity that is intended to create a sense of fascination for the great mysteries of the liturgical year.
Of course this Catholic culture of public festivity exists now, at least in American culture, only in vestigial forms. Mardi Gras, Christmas, Easter, and Halloween are all events which originate in a Catholic culture that has been subverted and transformed by Protestant and secular influences in the United States. For most in our culture, such celebrations likely mark the transitions of the seasons and an opportunity for leisure rather than a way of marking and remembering the great mysteries of our Redemption in Christ. In terms of the association of Halloween with dark and unfriendly powers, a strong case can be made that such fears are rooted in Protestant suspicions of Catholic culture and practices, for which the prejudices of the Reformation could find no other explanation other than the assertion that it all represented a reversion to paganism. Crowds of eighteenth and nineteenth century German and Irish Catholic immigrants carousing in masquerade late into the night hours on October 31st
filled stolid, American Protestants with dread of superstitions that they themselves had willfully abandoned in the transition from the Old to the New World.
Secularist historiography assimilated into itself these kinds of prejudices and gave justification to these fears by asserting a pagan pre-history to many of these celebratory practices of Halloween, rather than allowing them to be what they were- distinct expressions of the culture of the Church as it sought to celebrate and impart the truths of the Faith in an atmosphere of joyous revelry. Much of the ghoulish décor that has become a standard association with contemporary Halloween does not reach back into the mists of pre-Christian Europe, but to the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation and to the postulations of nineteenth century British intellectuals
, all this spooky bric-a-brac is linked to perceptions about Catholicism being something frightening and negative. The popular culture picked up on this critique and made it the reason for the celebration of Halloween.
Bold expressions of Catholic culture gave way in the United States to a practice of the Faith that emphasized assimilation and accommodation to the American experience. Catholic immigrants were encouraged by Church leadership and public pressure to embrace their new identity as Americans and much of the particularity that had characterized Catholic culture began to dissipate and disappear. The connection of Halloween with All Saint’s Day was broken, even in the consciousness of the Catholic faithful, and it was surrendered to those who believed it to be a pagan festival celebrating the dark powers of the night.
Recent attempts have been made to interject Catholic content into the celebration of Halloween but it might be that too much water has passed under this particular bridge. In order for this re-appropriation to work, Catholics would have to be not only catechized but also socialized into an understanding of the Faith that is intensely public in its character and expression. The current emphasis on “holy days of obligation”, which represents a circumscribed practice of the Church’s celebratory culture, would have to give way to occasions of public pilgrimage and festivity that culminated in, rather than were reduced to, obligatory attendance at Mass. On the practical level, preparation for the Church’s liturgical year could no longer simply be a concern for the mechanics of planning for worship inside our churches but for what would amount to a party hosted by Catholics for the whole community. Rather than getting in and out of the church parking lot quickly so as to return to secular concerns, Catholics would have to accept a more intense immersion in the mysteries of the Faith as embodied in both worship and culture. The criticism that such revelry does nothing but distract from the central purpose of liturgical commemoration simply represents our own internalization of Protestant critiques of Catholic practices. Our forebears knew that in terms of worship and revelry it was not a case of “either/or” but “both/and”.
Halloween was lost to Catholics because the importance of the public nature of the Faith expressing itself in the cultural particularities that made it unique gave way to an understanding of faith as a private, culturally attenuated reality that, rather than emphasizing distinctiveness, emphasized assimilation. For the moment at least, Halloween as a distinctly Catholic celebration has been in hiatus, but who knows? There is always next year!
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.
(And, don't forget to watch Father Barron on WGN America tomorrow, Sunday the 31st!)