But let's face it. It just wouldn't be a holiday, not a Christian one anyway, if groups of bitterly opposed Christians didn't call down anathemas on each other for failing to celebrate the holiday the Right Way.
At Christmas time, those of us parents who choose to add just a little of the secular fun into our predominantly, nay, overwhelmingly religious focus on the feast of the Nativity of Christ find ourselves up against the wall as we defend our permission for St. Nicholas' visits, an elf or two, a reindeer perhaps, or possibly a rousing chorus of Jingle Bell Rock to enter into our celebrations. Oddly enough, at Halloween, it's those of us parents who choose to focus our energies on the religious holiday, that major feast called All Saint's Day, who find ourselves once again up against a very similar wall, being called Puritans and spoilsports and ninnies for choosing to attend an All Saint's party with children dressed as saints instead of participating in the modern secular observance of Halloween with children dressed as...well, just about anything...and its focus on the ritual of ring-the-doorbell-and-get-free-candy.
It's a puzzlement, to be sure. And I'm getting sort of tired of that wall.
Perhaps some of my present head-scratching comes from reading this post over at First Things:
The absorption of pre-Christian cultic observance into the Christian calendar is not limited, of course, to holidays dealing with darkness and death. The Church settled on the date for Christmas by much the same process. Halloween’s emphasis on darkness makes many Christians squeamish, but, to my mind, what my friend observed about the medieval feel of Halloween is more on the money. There is a drama to be played out, like a mystery play in three scenes, and it makes sense only if you observe all three days of Hallowmas—not only Halloween but All Saints’ and All Souls’ days as well. In this context, the very secularity and even the roots-level paganism of Halloween become crucial elements in a larger Christian story.Hallowmas? Let's see, how do I put this relatively politely: balderdash.
I don’t especially encourage my children to dress as scary things for Halloween. We are taught, rightly, to avoid flirting with the occult, and the darkest character any child of mine has ever wanted to be is Darth Vader. This year three of my children are going as characters from the Lord of the Rings books, while my teenager has decided to be Lucille Ball. Christian children need not, as some do, dress as saints for Halloween to “redeem” it. There is something right, I think, in acknowledging on Halloween that the day for the saints has not arrived yet. This is salvation history, after all. We are saved from something—even if only from the ordinary, secular world of I Love Lucy, in which the sun rises and sets on Lucy’s dream of being in Ricky’s show.
What their costumes are is less important than the fact that, for a night, my children will be people other than themselves: each of them will be someone who, regardless of real-life fears about the dark, is not afraid to step out into the night. Armored inside their personae, they can laugh at the shadows, as well they should. On the one hand, the powers of darkness are no joke; on the other hand, although Christians have no traffic with these powers, we do not fear them.
Halloween is not some sort of Fall Triduum, after all. On my liturgical calendar there is All Saints, a Solemnity and a Holy Day of Obligation; it is followed by All Souls, which is a commemoration, in a unique category, but put at the level of a Solemnity; it is not, however, a Holy Day of Obligation. The day before isn't noted as a feast day; it is simply the vigil of All Saints. There is no three-fold action here, no slow rising from the table of the Last Supper to the rising of the Cross to the rising of the Resurrected Lord from His tomb in glory. There is, instead, a triumphant feast first, as we contemplate the saints who are already in Heaven, safely home; then a solemn reminder of the suffering of the poor souls in purgatory who so need our daily prayers and sacrifices, a reminder that we, too, may one day need the prayers of the Church Militant to move beyond purgatory and into eternal light. The two feasts are connected, to be sure--but if Halloween really had a "memento mori" element, one would think it would be celebrated on November 3 instead of October 31.
Further, I don't know how we can say that the secularity and roots-level paganism can be crucial elements in any Christian story. The secular world is in opposition to Christianity; the pagan world was too. Saying that the secularity and roots-level paganism of Halloween is important to the Christian story of All Saints and All Souls is kind of like saying that the secular ritual of staying up past midnight and drinking heavily on December 31 is a crucial element for celebrating the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God on January 1. Now, there's nothing wrong with attending a secular New Year's Eve party, provided one keeps the drinking to moderate levels and no immorality is contemplated or carried out. But any pretense that good Christians are practically obligated to party on New Year's Eve in order to appreciate better the sinlessness of the Blessed Virgin Mary and what her "Fiat!" to God meant to our souls (or our sorry pounding skulls) would be pretty ridiculous, would it not?
Secular celebrations are just that: secular. And sometimes that's just fine--no one expects to have to infuse the Independence Day barbecue and fireworks ritual with a narrative about how Independence Day is a foreshadowing of our independence from sin, and the fireworks are reminders of the brevity of life and how all that is beautiful eventually becomes ash, and the barbecue is an example of hope, because we sure hope the guy in charge of the grill is using a meat thermometer instead of just guessing when the food is done...This is not, of course, to say that there's no place for prayer, for faith, at an Independence Day barbecue; it just means we don't have to try to turn a purely secular event into an adopted Catholic holiday, when that is simply not what it is.
Halloween, as it is celebrated in 21st century America, is a secular holiday. The present way of celebrating it doesn't even really date back all that far:
After World War II, the American practice of Trick-or-Treat began in earnest. Sprawing suburban neighborhoods delighted in watching costumed boomer children "beg" from door to door. Traditional Halloween party foods (candied/toffee apples, popcorn balls, nuts) were proferred along with pre-wrapped commercial candies. Savvy candy companies capitalized on this lucrative opportunity by selling seasonal packages containing smaller sized products. "Back in the Day" (your editor trick-or-treated on Long Island in the 1960s) it was fairly usual to get little decorative halloween bags containing all sorts of things. These were assembled at home, usually composed of loose candies (candy corn, Hershey Kisses, marsmallows, MaryJanes or Tootsie Rolls, etc.), some pennies and maybe a small toy. We also carried little milk-carton shaped boxes distributed in school and said "Trick or Treat for Unicef." Beginning in 1952, UNICEF's halloween program thrives today.While "trick-or-treating" may have been done locally on a small scale before World War II, it doesn't appear to have been very popular before the 1920s or 1930s. So, as a secular holiday ritual, it would appear to be less than 100 years old.
Having said all that, let me reiterate what I've said when I've written on this topic before: there is nothing wrong with deciding that what works well for your family is to celebrate the secular sort of Halloween. Nothing at all. We used to do it, too. I got tired of the really scary costumes on other kids, the really slutty costumes on other kids, the jerk who answered the door with a live snake around his shoulders and liked to scare the kids with it, and loads of other things. I got tired, not of the secularism, but of what the reality of our current secular culture with its deviance, immorality, violence, depravity, and ugliness makes out of this day--because that's the reality where I live. If you live in a nice little neighborhood where you know all of your neighbors and trick-or-treating still consists of adorable ballerinas and pirates venturing forth for loot then--great! Go for it, and enjoy a piece of candy for me (preferably chocolate, since I can't have it myself).
And if you like to do both the secular trick-or-treat ritual and an All Saints' Day party, again--great! Even if I lived in one of those picket-fence neighborhoods, I'd have to think twice about that--because it would mean double costumes, and as a card-carrying M.I.S.C.R.E.A.N.T. who is allergic to crafts I'm hard-pressed enough to come up with one apiece for my girls (thank heavens they are much better at crafts than I ever was, and need minimal help putting a costume together anymore).
And if you only do an All Saints' party like we do, once again, great! It's not mandatory to celebrate All Hallows' Eve with a secular ritual dating back to about 1920, but beginning in earnest after World War II. I've got Catholic school textbooks from the "in-between" period, and they show children celebrating Halloween much as we do: with a small party, some punch, some games, and sometimes some reference to the saints; interestingly, even costumes are rare on the pictures of these kids at their parties, who are mostly dressed as you'd expect schoolchildren in the 1930s or 1940s to be dressed. So dressing up as a saint isn't mandatory to celebrate All Hallows' Eve.
And people who do celebrate Halloween with an All Saints' Day party in anticipation of the Solemnity of the next day aren't necessarily holier or wiser or better than anybody else. If anything, we recognize our need in this increasingly hostile culture to carve out pockets of acceptable compromise, to let our children have the treats and candy and joy and laughter their peers will be having (to say nothing of Aunt Charlotte's famous Pumpkin Cake Roll, which they already waxed lyrical about to their friends as the single thing they most look forward to on October 31 each year) without having to be immersed in the culture of violent and sexual imagery which continues to seep into the secular celebrations of the day, interfering more and more with children's innocent joy and making the secular celebration look more evil than it ever did when I was a child.
If you are blessed to live in an area of America where Halloween is still innocent fun for a child, without blood-filled masks and horror movie chic, without slutty nun/priest costumes or a whole host of faux-prostitute wear, without the creeping influence of the occult and diabolical, then by all means, relax and enjoy it while your children are still young enough for this ritual of ringing the doorbell and getting some free candy. But if you find yourself increasingly uncomfortable with the hallmarks of Halloween where you live, if things don't seem as innocent and simple as they used to, or if your kids come home crying because of the scary costumes and even scarier yard decorations people put up without thinking of the littlest ones and their sensitive imaginations, then don't think you have to become some sort of holier-than-thou weirdo to opt out of the whole recent modern secular ritual and replace it with a different kind of celebration.
And by all means, don't think you're failing to celebrate a three-day Catholic feast called "Hallowmas," which doesn't even exist. You're not a Puritan, a ninny, or a prude; you're a parent. And like all of us, the All Saints' Party people and the Trick-or-Treat brigades, you're just trying to do what works best for your family.