Thursday, October 29, 2009

Halloween post: the redhead edition

I wasn't going to get into this one, not this year. Sure, I saw the discussions start up, the increasingly combative tone taken by some, the outright dismissal of some people's experiences by others, the tendency to characterize the opposite side with sweeping generalizations and waist-deep assumptions; but I just wrote this little post, and backed off. I've written about this whole thing before, just laying out a "what works for my family" kind of thing, and leaving it at that.

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.

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.
Hallowmas? Let's see, how do I put this relatively politely: balderdash.

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.


Anonymous said...

Love this post.

Magister Christianus said...

Well said, as always. Last year our son was King Arthur and our daughter a princess. Before that he was King Arthur again and a cowboy (she was too young). Why did they dress as those characters? Because that was what they were into at the time. This year, our son will be Batman, wearing, believe it or not, my own Batman costume from when he was my age, courtesy of Grandma.

Yet I cannot see us participating in this much longer. There is too much of the scary and obscene, and I think it is foolish-bordering-on-negligent for parents to thrust or allow their children to be thrust into such a miasma of vulgarity.

Charlotte (Matilda) said...

Thank you!

JMB said...

I live in the suburbs of NYC and honestly, I've only recently heard of people (via the internet and on blogs) that don't participate in trick or treating. There is a family of Jevohah's Witnesses in town that don't participate in the school parade. This shows how clueless I am, I thought it was pretty much a fundamentalist Protestant thing to not do Halloween. Anyway, I don't have a problem with Halloween, my kids have never been freaked out by the scary costumes (but my dog has!). I do gather up all the candy and throw it away after the kids get their allotted "ten pieces" . I guess that makes me more against the gluttonly than anything else. I agree with you completely. It really depends so much on your situation - your neighborhood, your family's customs, your school or homeschool group. There's no "one size fits all".

c matt said...

The secular world is in opposition to Christianity; the pagan world was too.

I would agree with you about the secular world being in opposition. The pagan world (at least the ancient one) seemed a little more complex. To be sure, some elements were in opposition; others seemed simply ignorant of it rather than completely in opposition. At least pagans recognized something of the supernatural, immortal and transcendant, even if their understanding was quite confused.

Lindsay said...

Wow, I didn't get any of that from Sally's article. I didn't think she was trying to say you *had* to celebrate Halloween, nor do I think that she was presenting any false information. There is certainly something medieval about dressing up in spooky costumes, and it seems human to be fascinated with death and Christian to find meaning in it. I find it hard to believe that the tradition of death masks, skeletons, devils, ghosts, and other symbols of death and hell particularly have no bearing on the fact that the following day is when we remember Heaven, and subsequently remember those suffering in purgatory. Halloween is the closest thing we have to medieval mystery plays, the day of the dead, and other scary holidays. I read her article in the light that her family chooses to be mindful of that and sharing it with others who may have never seen it that way before.

Anyway, I came away from the article thinking, wow, that's a neat way to look at it, and felt absolutely no guilt or burden to take my kids trick or treating. I understand your points about doing what works for you, but I can't really see how Sally Thomas is guilty of doing anything except what works for her and writing an article about why it does.

Christine said...

I have been wondering about dressing up for Halloween and trick-or-treating. It was totally foreign to my family when we first moved to the United States and it was only introduced in France in the late '90s.

I really appreciate your insights.

Anonymous said...

"Hallowmas" as a term (Middle English Alholomesse) and a three-day Christian celebration with bonfires, costumes and parades did exist (about 1,000 A.D), but like many things throughout history the form of the celebration changed. I actually think the First Things writer is closer to understanding what Halloween/All Saints/All Souls is about and I like that author's take on it as a three-scene mystery play. The rest of your post I mainly agree with, just wanted to set the record straight on Hallowmas.

Deirdre Mundy said...

This year my kids are being:
1. The tooth fairy. Lose the wand, add a Halo, and she's an angel for all Saints.

2. A fairy princess, Lose the wings, add a baby doll, and thanks to her Godmother's sewing skills (authentic medieval princess gown) she becomes St. Margaret of Scotland!

3. A 'Sword-fighter-guy' (he's two, give him a break. :)) Add a crusader tunic and he's St. George!

We enjoy trick-or-treat, and especially try to hit all the elderly neighbors' houses-- they love seeing the kids dressed up. Our town's isn't too rough, though-- it runs from 5-7, which is too early for the teens...... not white picket fences, exaclty, but not Mad Max either......

We do All Saints' parties when we're invited, but it varies year to year. Mass is the biggie, after all. :)

I think a HUGE factor in the Halloween decision is the age of your kids. If they're young, like mine, Halloween is all about pumpkin patches, jack-o-lanterns, fancy costumes and trick-or-treat... it's basically a holiday that says "Little kids are cute!"

For older kids, it gets weirder... or fizzles out. I think our family philosophy is going to be something like "Halloween is for the littles!"

Anonymous said...


I just read your comment and agree. I didn't get that from the Sally Thomas article either. Thank you for saying it better than I can!

Lisa said...

Awesome response! I couldn't agree with you more -- on every point.

Jamie said...

I agree with you 100%, I love how you've written this. It makes me think what I often think, why can't we all get along?

I am always amazed at the emphasis put on this day (Halloween) from store clerks constantly asking what the children will be to well, everyone asking about trick or treating to the day after, when no one even brings it up again. It's funny actually. It's just a day.

eulogos said...

I loved it when I was a kid, back when it was safe to go into the neighbor's houses and have mulled cider or hot cocoa with marshmellows, and safe to eat homemade treats, which we always received. I also did trick or treat for UNICEF in 1957, announcing a bit too boldly that "We don't want candy, we want money!" My kids loved it and I loved going with them, at least for the first hour or two. I taught my kids about the religious back story to the holiday, and took them to church the next day when that was possible. They even went to one or two "All-saints" celebrations as well, with minor costume alterations. If the innocent secular holiday of Halloween has to pass, I for one will regret it.
Susan Peterson

Charlotte said...

I, for one, HATE the pressure to HAVE to go to the harvest parties or All Saints parties under sentence of being "less than Catholic" if I don't. Trick-or-treating isn't tantamount to participating in a satanic high mass, for heaven's sake. It's candy and a costume.

Even if Hallowmas is fake (although another comment left here makes it seem as if there is some precedence for it?), I like the idea of making this "tridium" a part of the holiday. There's only good in the idea from what I can gather, and no bad. It's emphasizing the Catholic aspects of the Halloween, looks like a "win" to me.

By the way, this week Conversion Diary has a very long discussion on this subject that I found interesting and helpful.

Charlotte (Matilda) said...

Anonymous of 9:27 AM:

The phrase Hallowmas means "Saints Mass" just like the phrase "Michaelmas" means "Michael's Mass". IF people used the phrase to include the eve of All Saints and also the commemoration of All Souls (which I have never seen any documentation of), that was a cultural phenomenon, not the official teaching of the Church.

Rebecca said...

I agree with all you say...I've heard so many things about the various origins of modern day Halloween, it's hard to sort it out or to know the best thing to do with the kids, and I just don't think there's one right answer here. IMO whatever you do is fine as long as it stays clean, and I think it's good to make a point of All Saint's somehow instead of letting it just get lost. And you make a good point about observing what is going on in your neighborhood and whether the kids are going to be seeing really horrible or inappropriate things if they go out.

I just want to add too that Santa Claus as we know it, connected to the feast of Christmas, is also a relatively new thing, connected mainly to commercial efforts, and I regard him as entirely optional as well.

freddy said...

I liked the "First Things" article. It resonated with what I've been taught and what I've taught my children. I don't get equating the idea of finding Catholicism in celebrating Halloween with making Independence Day a "Catholic" holiday. After all, there are Catholic elements in Halloween, whatever its weird history, and there are none in Independence Day.

Whether a family chooses to celebrate Halloween with costumes and candy, or All Saints' Day with costumes and candy, or some mixture of the two or none at all, we shouldn't act as if only our own experiences and opinions are the benchmark by which to measure another family's.

And just so you know, I've done neither, both, and one-or-the-other with my family. And while I've certainly been looked down upon and had to field "kindly meant" comments by the "All Saints' Only" crowd, ("Oh, *we* don't celebrate Halloween; *we* just find it a glorification of paganism and evil...") none of the "trick-or-tread" crowd ever said anything about our All Saints' costumes or parties.

Red Cardigan said...

Freddy, what are the Catholic elements of Halloween? Is it just because the day falls the day before All Saints Day? I've heard recently many claims to the effect that Halloween is a Catholic holiday, but I'd argue that All Saints Day is the Catholic holiday and that the various customs regarding Halloween have mixed origins, especially as we celebrate it here in America today.

And I've been pretty consistent with the "do what works best for your family" meme. An All Saints party works best for our family, and I'd like it if people who don't do one don't automatically assume we're a bunch of holier-than-thou weirdos who don't celebrate the ancient Catholic tradition of "Hallowmas" which I only heard about yesterday and can't find mentioned in any Church histories.

I don't assume people who go trick-or-treating are doing anything wrong; in fact, I assume that trick-or-treating works best for their family. So why can't this be a two-way street?

For the record, I don't find the 60 or 70 year old tradition of dressing kids up and letting them ring doorbells for free candy to be a glorification of paganism and evil. I don't find it to be the first act in a medieval mystery play, either; both seem to be way too much of a stretch.

freddy said...

Well, gee, Red, I'd think that just the origin of the name -- the Eve of All Hallow's (All Saints') Day is fairly Catholic, for one. But maybe I'm just a ninny.

You were the one who pointed out a reaction from folks who think avoiding trick-or-treating was weird: "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."

I was just pointing out that in my experience, the opposite happens as well.

I agree with you that folks should just relax and do what works best for your family, but your article doesn't really seem to do that -- in its inception and in your conclusion you are highly critical of one family's mindset regarding this quite silly holy day eve.

Red Cardigan said...

Freddy, how is my conclusion critical of anything? I say that people aren't being Puritans, ninnies or prudes if they don't necessarily agree with Sally Thomas that the Halloween trick-or-treat secular custom is some kind of key, *spiritually* important part of the "Hallowmas feast." I don't say that there's anything wrong with trick-or-treating--I don't even imply it.

And if you can only celebrate in one of the two possible ways (as we can, here, since we don't have a parish All Saints' party or anything like what Sally Thomas describes), and you chose to put some religious flavor in your celebration by creating an All Saints' Day party, how is talking about that being demeaning to those who don't?

Is it the fact that I use the word "secular" to describe trick-or-treating that's bothering people? Well, what else is it? While the custom of begging (by the poor, naturally) prior to various feast days was an ancient Catholic custom, it wasn't exclusive to All Hallows' Eve or connected in a spiritual way to the religious feast (aside from giving those whose doors were knocked at an opportunity to practice charity). And tracing the origins of today's trick-or-treating to that ancient custom overlooks the reality that trick-or-treating is pretty exclusive to America (though our candy manufacturers are starting to import the custom overseas) and, as I said before, has only been around for 60 or 70 years.

Here's the thing: I'm fine with trick-or-treating. I don't think it's evil, or an invitation to the devil to go ring somebody's doorbell and get free candy. But it is definitely a secular celebration that is totally optional for one's celebration of All Saints' Eve; and Sally Thomas' article rubbed me the wrong way *precisely* because she makes the case that, really, trick-or-treating is the first act in an ancient Catholic medieval mystery play, and those of us who don't choose to do it are depriving our children of an important *spiritual* experience.

Which is bunk, frankly. I don't deprive my children of anything because we stopped trick-or-treating. I don't even deprive the neighbor kids on the years when we host the party, because we put candy in a bowl outside the front door and encourage them to help themselves. (Sadly, in the neighborhood I live in it's not safe to leave the bowl out front in the years when we're obviously not at home.)

But this week on various Catholic blogs I have learned that those of us who choose not to trick-or-treat are:

"Helicopter parents"
judgmental (because, obviously, choosing not to trick-or-treat means judging everybody who does, just like choosing not to send our kids to public school means judging..oh, wait...)

and now, according to Sally Thomas, we're also not fully participating in the sacred mystery called Hallowmas.


I respect trick-or-treaters. My choice not to do it anymore was made for lots of reasons, none of which involved thinking a costumed, free-candy hour of celebration was evil. I'm getting tired of having to justify that choice every year because my fellow Catholics think having an All Saints' party instead of trick-or-treating is weird.

Charlotte said...

Hi Erin,
You say you are getting tired of defending your choice as to how to observe or not observe Halloween each year. Exactly.

Because some bloggers have to come out and make their case either way (for or against Halloween), the rest of us feel we have to react and defend our decisions, as well. Myself included.

It would be alot better if everyone would just keep quiet about it. I recognize that in this case, you saw something someone wrote and you wanted to call them on it. But in doing so, that's all it should be. You are such a good and intelligent writer, that I don't think you recognize that your commentary went beyond the basic issue you were trying to discuss.

If it's something you (or anyone) HAS to do every year, maybe it's time to decide to not bother anymore. Again, that might also include myself. As you said, "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." Perhaps it's time for all of us to bow out of those conversations.