Thursday, October 29, 2009

Should Christians Celebrate Halloween?

Jen at Conversion Diary raises the question, and an interesting discussion follows.

I tagged this post with my "liturgical year" tag because of the All Saint's Day connection, which probably signals some of my bias. I view it in the same way that I view Mardi Gras, as a feast (of sorts) before a fast. And that can be a wholesome thing - the Coptic Church does it well, from what I've heard - or a sinful thing (as any American knows from Mardi Gras).

In my mind, I guess that makes it pretty much the same as any party. The passion of festivities can be inflamed by the Holy Spirit or by the burning desires of the flesh (perhaps it can also be motivated by neutral reasons: a birthday party isn't a religious celebration, but it's obviously not sinful). A party can be a place where you celebrate and enjoy God's goodness and Christian fellowship, or it can be a place where you drink too much and find a partner for premarital sex. The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal seem to do quite well with Catholic Underground, in my opinion, at creating a festival space that's still holy and wholesome. They start the night off with Eucharistic adoration, and an interesting mix of Latin chant and modern (Protestant-style) praise and worship songs. After that, everyone progresses to a different area to listen to music, peruse Catholic books, eat snacks and chat with one another. The bands are typically Catholic, although not all of them sing specifically Catholic (or even religious) songs.

Still, despite everything that they do well, I wouldn't be totally shocked to hear that some of the young people who met there then went to the bar, got drunk, and had sex. So I get the Puritan impulse to demonize festivities. It just happens that the Lord of Hosts doesn't buy into that impulse, as we see from the Old Testament celebrations.

Halloween, though, is a different issue. Here, you've got all the usual "parties are dangerous" hesitations coupled with people who definitely celebrate Evil on Halloween. What say you, readers? What's the appropriate Christian response to Halloween?

3 comments:

  1. Joe,

    "What's the appropriate Christian response to Halloween?"

    Here's a bit of a rant for you:

    Last Sunday, my wife and I took our two small children to a "Halloween" party at our church. The kids' costumes were all very benign: princesses, monkeys, dogs, doctors, butterflies, etc., but there were some carved up pumpkins and I remember one adult woman who was attired as an all-out witch. There was also a story read to the children that was entirely "ghoulish" in nature.

    I came away from the party with a bit of a sour taste in my mouth (which wasn't from the candy and cake). As I stood at the party, supervising my 18 month old son, I contemplated the entire spectacle and the somewhat existential question occurred to me: "What the heck are we doing here, guys? Jesus Christ is right above our heads in the tabernacle of the church (our church hall is right underneath the nave), and here we are dressing up as witches and the like. Why? What do the children of Light have to do with these popular themes of Halloween?"

    Ultimately, I think those are the questions one must ask in order to contemplate a proper Christian response to secular Halloween. What does it mean to let your children dress up and go door-to-door asking for candy? What does it mean to participate in a spectacle of ghoulishness? Where is Jesus in all of it? How does all the ghoulishness tie in with what the Church is trying to celebrate at this time, namely All Saints and All Souls?

    This isn't Mexico, and we're not doing the sort of things they do for "Dia de los Muertos," we don't build altars to honor our deceased relatives, and we don't visit their graves. Instead, the major thematic undercurrent in North America's "Halloween" is glorifying and glamourizing death, horror, gore, and fear. That's inherently opposed to the Christian way, which emphasizes the victory of Jesus over death and the devil.

    I just don't buy the naive justifications many Catholics seem to offer to appease their consciences about participating in the secular Halloween festivities. I don't think it's "just harmless fun," nor do I think it's an opportunity to meet our neighbors and show them that we Catholics aren't freaky, or let them see what Catholic "hospitality" is all about. Apparently, the Spanish bishops agree: http://www.mmail.com.my/content/17051-spanish-catholic-leaders-lash-out-‘pagan’-halloween

    There are theological and doctrinal problems with Christians participating in the secular version of Halloween, just like there is if we were to join in at the local "Gay Pride" march, or offer our time as a clinic escort down at the local Planned Parenthood office, or receive communion at a Protestant church, or attend an awards ceremony for pornographic movie stars (before anyone starts, no, I'm not saying Halloween, homosexuality, Protestantism, abortion and pornography are on the same level).

    If we want to formulate a proper Christian response to "Halloween," or anything else for that matter, then I think our first action should always be to look to the Church. What does the Church have to say about "Halloween", what do the bishops think of it? What is All Hallow's Eve all about? What is All Souls and All Saints supposed to be celebrating? What does the Church teach us about Jesus Christ, his death, resurrection, and redemption of mankind? How do we reconcile those teachings with what we see in the world around us at this time of year? How do we use this time of year to preach the Gospel, and show the world that God has given us another way?

    If the Church is saying things that are contrary to the spirit of what we see around us, then who are we to say that we know what's better for ourselves, and for our souls, and the souls of our children?

    Are we really serious about salvation or not?

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  2. I've got to say, I'm pretty persuaded by what you've written here. I really enjoyed dressing up in scary costumes growing up (until I was ten, I was the only boy of the five of us kids, so being able to scare my sisters was something I looked forward to year-round). But in light of any serious consideration of the prudence and spiritual implications of the idea, I think it's pretty indefensible.

    I'm still okay with celebrating Halloween, generally, but I at this point, I think you've got the right idea with benign costumes.

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  3. Hi Joe,

    Just to follow up on your last comment, I guess my own approach to Halloween is still something I'm trying to figure out. My wife doesn't know quite what to make of it all either, but we both agree that something about what we see in the common customs and attitudes that have arisen here in North America around Halloween fill us with a significant sense of unease (go figure). Usually, when I get that feeling about something, it's time to take a step back and look at what's going on as there's probably something there that I need to avoid.

    Mgsr. Charles Pope has a new blog post up on the very subject of Halloween. I agree with him that there is much benignity to participating in what I suppose we could call the "ghoulishness" of Halloween. As he points out, and as you yourself serve to witness, dressing up as ghosts and ghouls does not result in people going on to practice the occult, wicca, satanism, etc., so I think it's important for us to avoid irrational puritanical-style thinking when we're trying to formulate a Christian response to Halloween.

    All things are permitted, but not all things are beneficial. As I said before in my first comment, I think there is something fishy from a doctrinal or theological perspective about participating in all the "ghoulishness," but I'm tending toward the view that maybe it's more like listening to secular pop music than participating in a "Gay Pride" march.

    I once spent some time at a Ukrainian Catholic monastery in Canada. Fr. Terry, the hieromonk who oversaw the monastery (he was the only monk there), used to be a drug- and alcohol-addicted biker and would hang out with the members of Pink Floyd quite often. I remember we were driving along in the van to go visit Madonna House, and he put on some sacred music. I jested with him that perhaps he would like to bust out his Pink Floyd CDs, but he looked at me and said, with an edge of seriousness that I'll never forget, "Chris, you know, that music just doesn't interest me anymore because it has no hope in it. I prefer listening to sacred music because it's about Christ who gives us hope." Those weren't his exact words, but he did say something very, very similar (it was in 2004, so I'm a bit hazy on the precise details).

    I think Halloween is similar to secular music because it doesn't seem to want to remind us of Christ. If you're serious about pursuing a life of holiness, then it doesn't seem to make sense to listen to Pink Floyd or dress up as a ghoul and go door-to-door, reveling in giving people a fright.

    That rings true for me because if I listen to secular music, I end up feeling kind of hollow and empty, but if I play some Gregorian chant, I don't have those feelings. Same thing with Halloween. I went to that party at my church, and I felt kinda weird like I should be doing something better with my time, like I was allowing my children to participate in an activity that I couldn't reconcile with my Christian ideals.

    So, there you have it. I'm still trying to figure out what my response to Halloween should be, but I definitely think that the common mode of participation here in North America doesn't really line up with how I think a Christian should live. In my mind, it's kind of like spending your time hanging out in smoky bars, watching football, and telling irreverent jokes rather than helping out the Knights of Columbus, studying Aquinas, praying the Rosary, or making a Holy Hour at the local adoration chapel. Yes, we do need to have time to recreate, even participating in foolishness (as Aquinas calls it), but our time here is short, so why blow it on recreations that dull our sense of faith or want us to trivialize the supernatural? Perhaps a good book to recommend at this point is St Francis de Sales's "Introduction to the Devout Life." He talks a lot about this sort of thing.

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