When I was a child, rumor had it among my friends that Halloween was when trolls came out to snack on small children. Later, I matured enough to modify my opinion to believe that it was an evil holiday created by pagan druids. In the non-Catholic Christian community I grew up in, this was the general view — a Christian does not celebrate Halloween. We preferred to avoid all the hauntings and devil-worship and so on. Better safe than demon-possessed, we told ourselves.
In fact, Halloween is a Catholic holiday, part of a three-day celebration, along with All Saints and All Souls in which the Church prays for our loved ones in purgatory and rejoices with those already in heaven. The customs associated with it spring from a religious background, such as baking Soul Cakes to hand out as treats and jack-o-lanterns to ward evil spirits away.
The way we currently celebrate Halloween has become bland and commercialized, so unless we’re terrified of bite-size candy bars and superhero costumes, we have no reason to be afraid. It seems to me that what’s needed isn’t for Christians to distance ourselves from Halloween. Quite the opposite, we need to reclaim it in all its mysterious holiness. Life is fleeting but, even though death is frightening, no evil will ever take us from the arms of God. There’s a life beyond this one, and the saints show us the way to safety.
As a family, with friends, or even as a parish celebration, there are customary ways to celebrate.
• Light a bonfire. Fires are great because they add an element of danger and cast long, mysterious shadows. Most kids trick-or-treat fairly early and there’s plenty of time after to gather round and enjoy time with family.
• Dress up as saints. The saints are real-life superheroes. The martyrs in particular have some pretty frightening stories. Imagine a little St. Denis carrying around his head on a platter, or a St. Michael grappling with a dragon.
• Visit the family grave site. It can be uncomfortable to face death so directly, but it’s also a human, comforting, loving way to celebrate. The kitsch of the holiday is fun, but there is also a real, vital tradition underneath. The souls who have departed this life are in need of our prayers, and during this time an indulgence is available for those who pray.
• Revive old traditions. The trick-or-treaters expect candy and it’s best to give them what they crave, but it’s also great fun to bake Soul Cakes, carve elaborate jack-o-lanterns, light candles, tell scary saint stories, and of course, participate in All Saints and All Souls Masses.
These old traditions express the heart of the holiday. Halloween is a beautiful occasion to celebrate the triumphant, unconquerable life we have been given by God, a life that shines like a candle even if all around seems to be as dark as a moonless All Hallows Eve.
Father Rennier is pastor of Epiphany of Our Lord Parish in St. Louis. A former Anglican priest, he was ordained in 2016 under a pastoral provision for the reception of Anglicans and Episcopalians into full communion with the Catholic Church. He and his wife, Amber, have six children.