Happy Halloween, everyone! Oh, wait. Happy All Saints' Eve! Er...happy vigil of the feast of All Saints' Day?
You know where this is going, don't you?
Every October 31st, Catholic families, especially homeschooling ones, wrestle with the question of just what to call the day, and just how to celebrate it. Is Halloween pagan and evil? Is Halloween silly harmless kids' fun? Is Halloween overly-commercialized to the point where it will soon be the Christmas of October? Is Halloween too gruesome and scary these days? Is it better, more holy, more spiritual, more right, to celebrate All Saint's Day instead?
In point of fact, since Halloween is just a shortening of All Hallow's Eve, which itself pretty much means the vigil of the feast of All Saint's Day, I don't think it really matters all that much what you end up calling it. So, Happy Halloween, everybody!
But all those other questions remain. Now, I don't think you can make the claim that Halloween is pagan and evil; at least, I can't make that claim. I realize that serious scholars dispute the pagan connections to the day's celebrations, and just how many of the old rituals got wrapped up in the new ones--but then, we have the same fight every year about Christmas, and whether the tree or the lights or the various Christmas foods are somehow a continuation of some kind of old evil paganism, and what Real True Christians (tm) should do about it all. The point is that regardless of which of the scholars of antiquities are right about how much or how little influence the various pagans (Druids get blamed a lot) had on our present celebrations, unless you're busily stirring a cauldron full of foul-smelling stuff and chanting Druidic (or would-be, fake Druidic) spells, you're not practicing paganism by celebrating Halloween (or Christmas for that matter); you can't be a pagan by accident.
It's pretty clear, too, that the intention of Halloween is for it to be silly harmless kids' fun. Whether the kids in question dress up as superheros and go door to door looking for goodies, or whether the kids in question dress up as saints and have a blast at an All Saints' party, the point of the evening is hardly forging chains of thralldom to the evil underworld, is it?
So far, I've been pretty neutral about Halloween. The truth is that we've celebrated it in two different ways: costumes and trick-or-treating, and saints' outfits and an All Saint's Party. The reasons I got tired of the first way of doing things and started participating in the second way had to do more with the next two questions in the third paragraph: Halloween as over-commercialized, and Halloween as gruesome and scary.
I may not be the crunchiest of crunchy-cons, but I've started to feel unsettled about our nation's way of celebrating holidays. As soon as the back-to-school clothing and items disappear from the store shelves (in early to mid July) the first glimmerings of Halloween merchandise start to show their black and orange glory in the "seasonal" aisles of the big-box stores; and long before Halloween even arrives we can see the Christmas trees and other "holiday" goods being set up in the hopes that the longer the items are on display, the more of them will be purchased by eager consumers who can't get enough of red and green plastic. If Halloween were just candy and costumes it would be bad enough to have these items on display from before August through the end of October; but now we have Halloween goods in every section of the store, as if people can't celebrate October 31st without hanging pumpkin-face towels in their guest bathrooms and purchasing the matching hand-soap dispensers and other accoutrements with which to festoon their homes long in advance of the actual holiday.
And nearly all of those goods are made overseas, most of them in countries under Communist rule, where the young people--many of them women--work fifteen hour days seven days a week for a salary that equals a few hundred dollars a month. Reporters are digging into the toxic working conditions and other exploitative business practices that characterize these workers' lives--but as long as there is demand for these kinds of cheaply made, worthless seasonal goods, the goods will be produced.
Granted, the average Catholic homeschooling family isn't really contributing to this problem--few of us go out and snap up silly "seasonal" items, and many make and re-use costumes even if they are choosing to celebrate the "trick-or-treating" way.
But the other disturbing trend in Halloween is the trend toward the gruesome and scary--really scary, not "silly green-faced witch on a broomstick" scary--aimed and directed at our children by the marketers behind the masks and costumes.
In a big-box retail store last night I saw a little boy, younger than any of my children, gleefully playing with a fake knife his parents were buying for him, making stabbing motions with it. Now, I'm well aware that little boys can turn almost anything into a weapon, and I have no problem with toy knives or even toy guns--but this thing was grotesque: the "blade" part was clear plastic, and every time the boy made the "stabbing" motion dark red fluid like fake blood filled the blade, so that it looked as though he was holding a knife drenched in blood. The boy thought this was great, and was having fun aiming it at his little sister.
Is it just me, or is that way too graphic a "toy" for a child to be playing with?
I've heard from parents who can't even take their children in or near the "Halloween" aisles of the stores: from the truly horrific monster masks to the Frankenstein statue whose motion sensor makes him rip his own head off every time someone gets close, this stuff is the stuff--literally--of nightmares. By the time a child is old enough not to find these things frightening, he's almost too old to be trick-or-treating anyway.
Our girls went trick-or-treating the first few years we lived in this neighborhood. It always seemed like a bit of an anticlimax: all that costuming and preparation, followed by about an hour of going door-to-door for too-much candy, not all of which they could even eat (allergies, alas). So when my sister-in-law, whose littles were even littler than my girls, suggested a family All Saints' party as a substitute we jumped at the chance to celebrate in a way that would last longer and be more fun for everyone.
At this point, two of my girls feel like they're "too old" to trick-or-treat anyway (boys seem to enjoy this aspect longer, don't they?). So getting to dress up like a saint or a virtue and then going to a party with games, food, fun, and a really awesome cake (at least, when it's Aunt's turn; they can't wait for the pumpkin cake roll!) is much more fun than going door-to-door for candy.
Now, is it better, holier, more spiritual, etc.? I'd never say so. Not everyone has the opportunity for a party like our family party, and there's certainly nothing wrong with the "trick-or-treat" variety of celebration. We decided to do what we're doing because this really is what works best for our families, and it's turned out to be a lot of fun, and to be a way to keep Halloween special and exiting long past the age when trick-or-treating seemed like the most fun thing in the world (which seems to be somewhere between five and eight, but that's probably just at our house).
The truth is that there's no one "right" way to celebrate Halloween. This really is a holiday for which the Bean Principle, "Do what works best for your family," seems to be operative. However you celebrate All Hallow's Eve, have a happy celebration--and a wonderful All Saints' Day tomorrow!