Monday, October 25, 2010

What's wrong with Halloween

I really hadn't intended to do a second Halloween post this year, but two things happened. First, I saw several "pro-Halloween" posts like this one, which seem to go out of their way to send a message that says, "Look--all the cool Catholic bloggers take their kids trick-or-treating, so if you're doing some alternative All Saint's thing then you're either a) a silly goose who thinks trick-or-treating is Satanic, or b) a silly goose who thinks that fake severed heads dripping with fake blood hanging from a neighbor's tree are too scary for small children instead of being exactly the kind of totally awesome "memento mori" thing Catholics ought to love, or c) a silly goose who doesn't get the secret but awesome Catholic mysticism involved in dressing up like a Disney princess and getting free candy from the neighbors in an ancient mystical rite that has been around forever--or, well, that only exists in America and only since sometime in the 1930s or so, but we shouldn't let history get in the way of a good story, right?"

And second...but we'll get to that in a moment.

For the umpteenth gazillionth time, I do not think that trick-or-treating is inherently evil. I also don't think that reindeer and popcorn balls are evil, or that candy-shaped boxes full of chocolates are evil, or that leprechauns and green beer are evil, or that Mardi Gras beads and king cake are evil. What I do think is that they are secular add-ons to religious holidays, and as such are totally and completely optional for Catholics. If my brother's Chaldean Catholic in-laws (for example) don't throw a green-themed party on March 17, are they being less than Catholic? Or is it simply the case that St. Patrick's importance to the liturgical calendar depends just a bit on one's own particular cultural heritage? If I don't attempt to bake a king cake on Mardi Gras, does this make me less than Catholic--or is it simply a recognition that my family's traditions don't include this particular part of pre-Lenten preparation?

So, if you'll pardon me, why all the fuss? Why do those who do enjoy trick-or-treating get all bent out of shape when they hear that my girls--who are too old to trick-or-treat anyway, by their own estimation--prefer the All Saint's party their awesome aunt and uncle host? Why do so many Catholics seem to care so much about this one tiny optional activity to celebrate Halloween--an activity which hasn't been around in its present form all that long, historically speaking, and which may or may not be practical depending on where you live, what your neighborhood (if you live in one) is like, and a whole lot of other variables that are going to be different for each family?

I'm not sure I have an answer. But what I do have is an observation.

In our dysfunctional culture, a lot of the secular "add-ons" to real holy days have become corrupted by that culture. We Catholics are very aware of this--we bemoan the disappearance of the word "Christmas" from our culture and the substitution of the ubiquitous and ambiguous "Holiday;" we worry about the commercialization of Christmas and some of the silly extremes to which secular elements have been taken (Mrs. Claus, anyone?); we recognize that people who've never set foot in a Catholic Church agitate for Gay Pride floats in St. Patrick's Day parades; we are aware of the sinful excesses of much of the Mardi Gras events in places like New Orleans; we sigh over St. Valentine's name and memory being used to advertise jewelry, much of it mined, manufactured and obtained in ways that are cruel and unjust from our poor brothers and sisters in countries where existence is a constant struggle--I could go on, but you get the point, I'm sure.

Halloween has not been untouched by the corruption of our culture. Whether it is used as the backdrop for movies featuring graphic violence and gore, or whether it is "claimed" by various neo-pagans, or whether the present fascination with vampires sinks its fangs into the day, or whether it increasingly becomes an excuse for people to dress and act immodestly, or whether it combines all of these negative attributes and adds others I haven't thought of or mercifully don't know about, our culture has not left Halloween alone. Does this mean that Catholics have to reject all secular celebrations of it? No, as I've said umpteen gazillion times already. But what it does mean is that each family is going to have to decide for itself how much "Halloweening" it is comfortable with--and if a Catholic family decides that they'd rather skip the neighborhood trick-or-treating and attend an All Saint's Day party instead, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

And that brings me to that second thing that is making me write this post (remember, way above, I said I'd get to it?). Our dysfunctional culture loves to attack what is good and holy, and it will do this at Halloween just as it does at other times of the year. We took this picture at a local branch of a big-box grocery store last week. My daughters were appalled by this costume being presented quite casually alongside costumes featuring witches, monsters, vampires and the like:

If you can't read the print on the package, the title of this costume is "Playful Nun." As our oldest girl said, "Nuns are supposed to be an example of chastity and piety. Their habits come down to their ankles, and they wear sensible shoes, not sheer stockings and heels. There's no such thing as a sexy nun." She instinctively found this costume disrespectful and insulting to our faith, as I do as well--yet the "sexy nun," "pregnant nun," and "evil/sinister priest" costumes grown in popularity in our sick culture.

However you choose to celebrate Halloween this week, then, our job as Catholics is to serve as salt and light to this culture, not to go along placidly with its worst elements. If we do the "trick-or-treat" thing we can insist on costumes that are modest and that don't pander to cultural sickness, and we can also insist on good behavior, polite attitudes, and moderate candy consumption (because gluttony isn't a virtue, either). If we do the All Saint's party, we can share stories about the saints that inspired the costumes, play saint-themed games, insist on the same standards of good behavior and polite attitudes, and remember that warning against gluttony while in the presence of Aunt Charlotte's famous pumpkin cake roll or any of her other much-anticipated dessert delights.

What none of us can do is pretend that the cultural sickness doesn't exist, or that it isn't a problem for us all. What's wrong with Halloween isn't really Halloween; what's wrong is our post-Christian culture, and its continuing decline into deviance and depravity.


L. said...

A male teacher at my kids' former Catholic school dressed up as a nun for Halloween one year, and the devout families laughed just as hard as the cafeteria families. (The school had habit-clad nuns teaching there until very recently, and still has one laicized nun on the faculty.)

When I was pregnant with my oldest son, I went to a Halloween party as the Pope. Even the devout Catholics I know thought this was funny when they saw pictures -- I wasn't a "sexy" Pope, though. Maybe that would have crossed the line?

One more thought. I once knew an evangical Christian who wore devil horns on Halloween (something I do sometimes). She said that laughing at Satan and making fun of him was a good way to put him in his place.

Not everyone is going to laugh at the same things, but I would put attempts at humor in a different category as attempts to be "sexy."

Charlotte said...

I think the reason some Catholics (and I don't yet put myself in that category, but I'm close) get upset with all the homeschoolers and orthodox types doing the All Saints Party thing is because there is sometimes (but not always) a tinge of superiorty or suggestion to the non-participating Catholic that the trick-or-treating is wrong and sinful, etc.

But, of course, you already knew that.

It just comes off as too goody-goody a lot of the time. I know almost all of the people who do the All Saints parties would deny that or not even be remotely aware of it (or want to come off that way), but it just does come off that way sometimes. Period.

And then you add into it people like my one traddy friend who wants to let her kids go trick-or-treating, but insists that they go dressed as saints. Which is fine and laudable. But she makes it such a major issue about the Catholic Costumes that I can see she is ripping all the fun out of it for her kids. She makes it into a "Catholic witness" activity rather than what it really is.

I'm sure you've never made the All Saints party an "issue" for your girls. But some parents do. I KNOW, personally, teenagers who feel angry and deprived because when they were kids, their parents made the Halloween vs. All Saints dichotomy a major theological issue in their families, when it's not that big of a deal.

AGAIN, this year, I have been pressured to take Alan to the local Catholic All Saints party. And AGAIN, I have explained to the people pressuring me that I will never take him there if I'm being pressured. So again, Alan might be missing out and maybe I'm being a jerk about it, but I just can't get over why these people want so badly for us to participate unless they're either: A.) Convinced we're sinning by doing trick-or-treating or B.) Feeling insecure about their own choices and want others to build them up.

I recognize that there might be an option C.), which is, it's just a good time and someone wants us to have a good time too. Yet I still can't get over the pressure to conform.

Quite honestly, I think many people in homeschool circles and other conservative Catholic circles do things to conform, so as not to be labeled as "sinners" or "lax" in their Catholicism. I don't think that of you, Erin, since it's obvious that you think things out for yourself. Sadly, though, I think there's a lot of sheep out there.

Kim D. in WI said...

I have thought about this All Saints/Halloween dichotomy plenty over the past few years. I want my kids to enjoy both aspects of this weekend, without being too goody-goody or thinking we're better Catholics than anyone else. I'd just as soon skip Halloween altogether, but we live in a suburban neighborhood where that would be pretty much impossible. My kids' ages are 12, 10, 8, 5, and 2.

This year we'll be attending BOTH an awesome All Saints party and trick-or-treating, as well as a Catholic school "Fall Festival" and a neighborhood pre-trick-or-treat potluck.

My kids have two sets of costumes (ugh!) but it turns out that they're so excited about their Saint costumes that a couple of them might skip the secular costumes after all. Last night we had a full-out reenactment of St. Juan Diego (age 5) and OL of Guadalupe (age 8) going on here. The secular costumes are not gory, scary, or pagan (two turtleneck-clad hula girls, Darth Vader, and a 2-yr-old spider), and my kids have, for the most part, figured all this out themselves. My rule is simple: "nothing creepy, no devils."

When we went to Party City to get the hula skirts and Juan Diego's sombrero, I was so embarrassed for my kids to see some of the creepy, "sexy," gross costumes they had there! They saw them, but passed by looking for accessories for their saints (St. Michael armor, wings, etc.).

Erin you're so right that evil forces are attacking our holidays, as well as all the other good aspects of Catholic life. I think it's just all part of teaching our kids that we are the "light of the world", "in the world but not of it", etc. It's a balancing act that every family will handle according to their own situation.

Charlotte (Waltzing Matilda) said...

It just comes off as too goody-goody a lot of the time....

These people aren't aware of their supposed moral superiority and really wouldn't want to come off that way but you still judge them to be on a high horse? No offense, but it sounds to me like you are the one being judgmental here.

A.) Convinced we're sinning by doing trick-or-treating or B.) Feeling insecure about their own choices and want others to build them up.

Regarding A: Frankly I have never heard of anyone so concerned about the state of someone's soul that they put forth the effort of putting on a party and make themselves vulnerable to attacks from fellow Catholics just to stop someone from committing what they believe to be a sin.

Regarding B: I could say the same about the people who try to turn trick or treating into some sort of sacred tradition or Christianization of Halloween rather than just acknowledging that they think it's fun and they want to do it.

And as regards option C: I find it funny that you choose to rebel against the pressure to conform to your religious crowd while the All Saints Party people are dealing with the pressure to conform to the worldly crowd. All I know is, as Christians, we are called to choose carefully our conformity to worldly standards. It's up to each of us to decide how much we choose to participate in the traditions of the world or not and not judge those who choose differently.

Those of us who do choose to celebrate All Hallow's Eve religiously instead of secularly (and I'm not using that as a bad word) get told over and over how we are freakishly shunning the world and denying our children their God-given right to run around after dark and knock on strangers' doors demanding candy. Please don't try to claim that trick or treating is a sacred tradition. It's not the same as beggars asking for soul cakes on the eve of a major feast day. How can you tell? Europe considers trick or treating a crass American holiday of consumerism that is diminishing their cultural heritage. If anything, Halloween is essentially a Hallmark Holiday like Valentine's Day. The card, jewelry and flower companies keep the Valentine's tradition going strong much the same way the candy companies are invested in keeping this tradition going. And hey, we buy plenty of candy for our All Saints Party, so I admit to supporting their efforts. But there are Christians who choose to opt out of the secular Valentine's traditions and they don't get this much flack. We get flack because we come up with an alternative for our children who really do get creeped out by all the Halloween hullabaloo.

We make an extraordinary effort and pull off a rockin' awesome All Saints party that our children declare is even more fun than any kind of after dark candy collection that will inspire restless sleep and fitful dreams and are told by our fellow Catholics that we are goodie-goodies for choosing an alternative to a secular tradition that is only celebrated in this country and has only been done so since the late 1930's. Am I also a goodie-goodie for using a Jesse Tree instead of a chocolate filled Advent calendar?

To put it plainly... there is a religious way to celebrate this vigil and there is a secular way. The Church doesn't require either of us. So, enjoy your tradition and I will enjoy mine. There is nothing wrong with trick or treating and there is nothing wrong with not trick or treating. Just like there is nothing wrong with calling the jolly man "Santa Claus" or "Saint Nicholas" or opting for the tradition of Easter Angels instead of a floppy eared bunny.

And maybe, just say a prayer for those really judgmental types who do struggle with moral superiority (in this area and those who struggle with it in other areas of their life) but, in all charity, you might also want to examine your own conscience to find out what makes you want to rebel.

Barbara C. said...

I agree with the first Charlotte. Even though, I haven't experienced this sort of peer pressure in real life like she has, I have seen it all over the Catholic blogosphere. And a lot of times there is a subtle implication that if you take your kids trick-or-treating and at the very least don't make them dress as saints then you have just allowed yourself to be seduced by paganism. It the same subtle vibe as you get from those who must tell everyone all the time that they are TLM-only (and that their kids only know their prayers in Latin), are dresses-only, and/or make sure that every female in their household is always veiled for Mass and so on. "You're just not as orthodox as we are; you're just too worldly. Repent now!" (I acknowledge that there are also those who unfairly mock those who feel called to do these things as religious whackos."

If people feel like an All Saint's party works better for them than Halloween more power to them. We prefer to go trick-or-treating at our house (at least until we start to get frost bite). I make my kids adhere to the same modesty standards as any other day (it helps that it's usually pretty cold in the Chicago area for Halloween).

The thing that really bugs me is when town governments try to change the trick-or-treating to another day when Halloween falls on a day of the week that they don't like. And while I understand it to some extent, it feels a little Big Brother when my government regulates the trick-or-treating times.

Red Cardigan said...

Well, here's the thing, Barbara: I don't blame all trick-or-treaters for making me feel like an outcast/freak for *not* trick-or-treating anymore; I only blame the ones who actually say stuff like that.

So how about we save the "anti-Halloween" finger-pointing for those who actually are against any and all celebrations of Halloween, not for those like me who just choose to celebrate Halloween with an All Saint's Day party over the whole relatively recent wholly American "run around the neighborhood and get free candy from strangers!" festival?

I'm not judging moms who still do the trick-or-treat thing. Hey, it's easy, some kids like it, and there's that whole free candy business. But I'm getting kind of sick, this year, of all the "You don't go trick-or-treating so therefore you're a ninny who hates Halloween and thinks it is pagan and Satanic!" nonsense on all the Catholic blogs. I'm not a ninny, and my kids are

Why is that a problem?

Charlotte (Waltzing Matilda) said...

It the same subtle vibe as you get from those who must tell everyone all the time that they are TLM-only (and that their kids only know their prayers in Latin), are dresses-only, and/or make sure that every female in their household is always veiled for Mass and so on. "You're just not as orthodox as we are; you're just too worldly. Repent now!" (I acknowledge that there are also those who unfairly mock those who feel called to do these things as religious whackos."

Thanks a lot for lumping the likes of me in that crowd, Barbara! Says this Charlotte who doesn't know any Latin, wears jeans with glee and has a picture of herself in a veil... on her wedding day!

Alisha De Freitas said...

I was raised to not celebrate Halloween, but did attend and even host some "Hallelujah Parties" (we Prots had to do something, lol).

Now as an adult, I'm facing a very difficult problem. Almost all of the adult female costumes look like the horribly disrespectful nun's "habit". I'm married, and it would be a disgrace to wear most of that stuff outside of the bedroom with my husband. I went through 5 stores trying to find a descent angel costume and have finally given up. I'll just have halos and wings at my office party.

By the way, Erin totally off subject, but I just made "And Sometimes Tea" my blog of the week at my site. You can expect maybe two visitors, lol. :-)

Anonymous said...

One the one hand, there is a charge made that trick or treating has only been around since the 1930s, but then it should be said that dressing up as saints is a brand new idea that only came about in the last few years. Actually, in generations past, there was also "Thanksgiving begging", which some trace to the end of the 19th century: "tricks" were for Halloween and "treats" were for Thanksgiving.

At least in the northeast, there were many Catholic cultural traditions that were infused in society and that included: Santa, the tooth fairy, the Easter bunny and trick-or-treating. This was done for generations in seriously Catholic neighborhoods; no one, not the Latin-mass-saying priests or the old-style habited nuns ever thought anything was wrong about any of it; indeed, most of them grew up doing the same.

I'm talking about: trick-or-treating, which includes dressing up as ghosts, witches, devils and skeletons. Not gore-n-whore fests, but not saints, either. They had the right idea.

I take objection to the attitude that if it's completely optional, then there is no reason at all to partake. I disagree; I think Catholics really do have to be in this world, in their community, in their neighborhood. Our private schools allow kids to dress up (no weapons, no gore, no sluts, but yes to just about anything else), our teens and young adults are encouraged to dress up at their part-time jobs, in grocery stores, in retails stores, etc. The local dance school has the kids in costume go dance for the nursing home patients. Our neighborhood encourages trick-or-treaters and one family gives out little glasses of spiked cider to the adults who take the kids around! There's something wrong with not being willing to be a part of the fun. And yes, you are saying to your community: you've got it wrong and we've got it right. We will set ourselves apart, and good luck with convincing them that "apart" doesn't mean "above".


Charlotte (Waltzing Matilda) said...

There's something wrong with not being willing to be a part of the fun. And yes, you are saying to your community: you've got it wrong and we've got it right. We will set ourselves apart, and good luck with convincing them that "apart" doesn't mean "above".

Sorry Mimi,
That's only your incredibly uncharitable interpretation. Please don't put those words in my mouth. They aren't there. (FYI... I always leave a bowl of candy on my porch during our party which I always find turned upside down in the bushes and ransacked later that evening. So, what exactly does that say to my community... and about them?)

If most neighborhoods relish in the delightfulness of trick or treating, then why do most cities around here offer an alternatives?

...activities include live entertainment, free carnival games, bounce houses, hayrides, storytelling, a costume contest and more. This annual event is a safe alternative to trick or treating for the whole community. [My emphasis. And no, this is not an event sponsored by the local Protestant Church, it's is sponsored by a nearby city government.]

Why are some cities putting an age limit on trick or treaters in an effort to quiet the frightened minds of it's residents who can't easily tell the difference between a trick or treater and an extortionist?

Maybe your neighborhood is unique. I hope you enjoy your uniqueness but also realize that not everyone lives in a neighborhood like yours.

And BTW... who gets to determine what is a weapon, what is gory, and what is slutty because that seems completely subjective if you ask me.

And as far as what would be a charitable interpretation of my choice... how about you take me at my word when I say that my kids don't like scary or creepy things. They don't like being surprised by people handing out candy holding live snakes and they don't think it's funny to see someone walking around with horns spirit gummed to his bald red head. Things that wouldn't even cross your mind as creepy disturb my children so for their sake, I don't participate in the cultural traditions (that have grown and changed along with the culture) and have decided to celebrate with an Eve of the Feast Party that honors the spiritual aspect of the vigil instead of the cultural one. A celebration that delights my children instead of terrifying them. Why is that so wrong?

Anonymous said...

I don't get too upset about the nay-sayers as I don't believe that the All Hallow's Eve is a confiscated pagan holiday.

I remember involvement in Newman Center Mass one Hallowe'en; we are ALL called to be saints or Saints!

Dress-up, and parties are fun at any age. (As a perpetual student, this is the time of year when mid-terms are the major production!)

priest's wife said...

Thank God Halloween is on Sunday this year so my husband doesn't have to go to work at the hospital.

Having a young man in clerics on Halloween is fonder for cruel jokes...I appreciate this post, red cardigan

Charlotte said...

Charlotte (Waltzing Matilda),
Not once here did I ever say trick-or-treating was some inherently Catholic tradition. Just to clarify.

And also, while it may be true for many homeschoolers, I have never pressured any of my homeschooling friends who don't trick-or-treat to do so.

Charlotte (Waltzing Matilda) said...

No, Charlotte, (wow this is confusing)
I agree that you did not ever say trick-or-treating was inherently Catholic. That was what I was reading in the articles like the one Erin linked to and others.

And, for the record, I have never pressured any of my friends who trick or treat to participate in an All Saints Party on the feast's eve.