Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Halloween: October's Mardi Gras

We're kind of between Great Catholic Blogosphere Debates at the moment, aren't we?

We've already had the Great Catholic Pants Debate of 2010. We have not yet had the Great Catholic Voting Debate of 2010, though I expect to see that one pop up any day now. We're months away from the Great Catholic Veil Debate of Spring, 2011; and there's still 73 blogging days before it will be too late for the Great Catholic Santa Debate.

Amazingly, the Great Catholic Halloween Debate has not, apparently, started up as yet this year.

Which is probably a good thing, because it probably means that all parties have simmered down somewhat from the debates of previous years.

At the risk of inadvertently kicking the whole thing off again, though, I'd like to share a bit from a two-year-old Catholic Exchange piece by Rod Bennett, which made a lot of sense to me:

And yet Halloween isn’t quite All Saints Day, is it? Or All Souls Day. What is it then?

You might say that Halloween is an “echo-holiday.” Halloween is to All Saints & All Souls Days as Mardi Gras is to Ash Wednesday — sort of their outlaw second cousin. Halloween is that part of the ancient death festivals which couldn’t quite be comfortably domesticated. It’s the part that still wants to run wild on the autumn winds, to soap windows and overturn outhouses. And yes, like Mardi Gras, this urge is difficult decently to restrain at times; the sowing of wild oats often produces crops that have to be reaped by the whirlwind. But just because a thing is subject to abuse doesn’t mean the thing itself is evil — a principle that our Evangelical friends have sometimes forgotten when the subject was wine, and we ourselves have often needed to be reminded of when the subject was sex.

Yet it isn’t the puritanical aspect of Evangelicalism that causes me to worry about a possible descent towards the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It’s the knee-jerk response that Halloween is to be feared solely because it has “pagan origins.” The truth is that a good deal of what all of us do every day has pagan origins. The mathematics we use has pagan origins; our form of government has pagan origins; the very letters with which this sentence is written have pagan origins. In fact, most of the churches from which these anti-paganism sermons issue are, architecturally speaking, Greek revival temples in the “neo-classical style.” So “pagan origins” alone isn’t quite enough to damn Halloween all by itself. As a matter of fact, it’s one of the great glories of Christianity that it does save and redeem and baptize pagan things — ourselves included!

I like the term "echo-holiday;" I really like the comparison between Halloween and Mardi Gras--because even though I'm one of those weird people who stopped letting her kids trick-or-treat and started having them attend an All Saint's Day party instead, I've never thought of Halloween as something intrinsically demonic or evil or wicked or nasty or bad. In fact, I have no particularly antipathy to jack-o-lanterns, black cats, or cute cartoon witches on broomsticks (or the really hilarious "crashed witch" decorations that make me giggle every time I see them).

In fact, it's not really accurate to say that our family stopped celebrating Halloween, though some people seem to insist on framing our decision that way. We just changed our celebration from a door-to-door free candy evening to a party, for reasons that made sense to us. Quite honestly, the whole "free candy" thing wasn't working out too well for our family. I've hashed all that out before, but at least one aspect involves our girls' mild peanut allergy, which made it necessary for Thad and me to go through all their candy and remove the peanut stuff before they could have it--which, trust me, was way more work than "free candy" was worth.

For some reason, though, telling people "Oh, we don't do the trick-or-treat thing anymore," is taken as secret hidden code for "I'm one of those people who thinks that Halloween is evil and I'm judging you for taking part in it in a way I disapprove of..." though that, of course, has never been what I've been saying. Even now that our girls are really too old to trick-or-treat, I find myself explaining why we don't do it--which is silly, considering that not too many twelve-to-fourteen-year-old girls go trick or treating, especially not the tall ones (my sisters and I, being short to the point of elfin, could have gotten away with it longer, but school peer pressure required one to find Halloween trick-or-treating childish and silly by age twelve, anyway).

So I started wondering what it is about Halloween that makes some people fly off the handle if you say you don't partake in a particularly American, relatively recent way of celebrating it that only works for kids either younger than 12 or shorter than five feet or so? I mean, nobody chides me for not celebrating Mardi Gras with a King cake and beads, or for failing to quaff green beer (ugh) on St. Patrick's Day, or if I choose not to bake heart-shaped cookies on the Feast of Sts. Cyril and Methodius. If it wasn't for the fact that there are still plenty of people handing out candy, I'd wonder if the trick-or-treat crowd wasn't getting a little uptight when some choose not to participate just because of the potential that the candy supply will dwindle; but that, of course, is silly.

What is more likely is that the more sensitive of the Catholic trick-or-treaters are reacting, not to someone's mild comment that they don't do the trick-or-treat thing, but to the bizarre stuff they may have encountered from some Protestant Christians which has seeped into some Catholic circles, where the "not trick-or-treat" thing really is a secret statement that Halloween is Evil and that the Way Proper Christians (Catholics) should observe Halloween is to Ignore it, or perhaps Hand Out fliers telling kids they'll go to Hell for trick-or-treating. Which is, frankly, nuts.

I have no problem with Halloween, and find some aspects of its secular celebration harmless, cute, and fun. But I also found out that trick-or-treating didn't work for my family, and that a really awesome All Saint's Day party was not just some kind of acceptable substitute, but actually a whole lot more fun for us. Other Catholics will decide that trick-or-treating is the more fun choice; and a few will do both types of celebrations. And that's just fine! It's just like some Catholic families celebrating Mardi Gras with a King cake and beads, and others adopting the tradition of serving pancakes for dinner. There's no obligatory Catholic way to add secular celebrations or "echo-holidays" to the real holy days--the only obligations we have are the usual ones, to avoid the sins of excess in our feasting and merrymaking as we are always supposed to. And, of course, to remember the actual Holy Day by attendance at Mass (on those Holy Days of obligation), prayer, good works, and other Catholic practices.

Other than that, the Church doesn't tell us how to celebrate Halloween, and we should be open to the notion that what works for one Catholic family may not work for another, without layering on those choices all sorts of excess baggage that really isn't there.


Anonymous said...

Our priest, who is pretty young (33-34), is anti-Halloween, associating it with evil. (To give you an idea of how extreme he can be, he will not even read a fortune from a fortune cooky because he equates doing so with fortune telling, astrology, horoscopes and the like. I almost fell out of my pew when he said that.)

Our church still has an event for children on Halloween night (or the Friday before Halloween if the holiday falls on a weekend). It used to be called a Halloween Party, but Fr. renamed it the "Fall Festival" (as one mother quickly corrected me) because Fr. doesn't like Halloween. *shrug* It's always very well attended, though, a great place to bring kids.

Deirdre Mundy said...

Erin-- I know my reactions to people who tell me 'we don't trick or treat' are more defensive because I know a number of people in the "Halloween is evil and if you're going to let your kids trick or treat you should at LEAST dress them up as Saints and make them evangelize" crowd.

Even worse... sometimes my girls dress up as.... fairies. Not angels. FAIRIES. And we read them scary stories. And we exchange gifts on Christmas, too... and even play at Santa!

I think some of us pro-trick-or-treaters feel the need to state our position loudly because if we don't, we run the risk of internalizing the 'pseudo-jehovah's witness' stuff.

c matt said...

I always looked at Halloween as All hallows eve, like Christmas eve. The day before All Saints. The dressing up, etc. I just look at as mocking the satanic, in honor of those who were able to overcome satan's lies and make it to heaven.

Charlotte said...

I'm laughing because in my head I recently thought of you, wondering when you were going to bring this subject up! : )

Amy said...

I just want to say I stumbled across your blog during the Great Catholic Pants Debate, and I love it! I hope you don't mind if I link to you on my blog :-)

Red Cardigan said...

Amy--not at all! I'd be delighted.

Charlotte--I know. I'm predictable. :)

Siarlys Jenkins said...

As a fan of Halloween, who grew up in a city that was half Catholic and one third Lutheran, almost all German, I applaud your entire presentation on this subject. At age 56, I still make sure to carve a pumpkin every year. I've developed a ritual for the day after, when I cut it in half, bury it with a handful of seeds scattered over it, and hope to grow vines in the spring. Pagan? IT was ordained by God. We are to replenish the earth.

Melanie B said...

I like the term "echo holiday" too.

I don't really get the whole debate.

The funny thing is that, while I guess I think of myself as pro trick-or-treating, my eldest is four and she and her siblings have never yet had a Halloween costume or gone trick-or-treating. The thing is I don't really like most of the off the rack options and I'd really prefer to make our own costumes. But that always turns out to be more work than I'm really up for. Either I've been pregnant or have had a new baby or (two years ago) we were in the process of moving that weekend. Plus we're a bit ambivalent due to the fact that Oct 31 is my husband's birthday. So we still don't really have a Halloween tradition for our family.