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A Holiday from Hell?

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I love Halloween. Always have. You get to carve fanciful faces on pumpkins, use your imagination to create clever costumes and go door-to-door collecting candy with family and friends. What’s not to love?

Well plenty, if you ask some Catholics and other Christians who believe the celebration to be Satanic with its roots in paganism. Are they right? Should we forego celebrating Halloween? Let’s take a look.

Speak of the Devil

Is Halloween a Satanic holiday? Several people through the ages have called themselves satanists but it wasn’t until April 30, 1966 that there was an official Church of Satan founded by Anton LaVey.

LaVey, in his book The Satanic Bible, describes members of the Church of Satan as being:

“…self-centered, with ourselves being the most important person (the ‘God’) of our subjective universe, so we are sometimes said to worship ourselves.”

Since Satanism is a self-professed, self-centered religion, it makes sense that:

“the highest holiday of the year would be the member’s own birthday, which needs no ritual but should be spent in doing things a Satanist would enjoy.”—Church of Satan

Is Halloween listed as a Church of Satan holiday?

Halloween is indeed among their holidays, however Halloween was celebrated long before the Church of Satan had anything to do with it. Therefore, historically Halloween is not Satanic. It could only be called Satanic if a Satanist were celebrating it—as would Groundhog Day or Arbor Day.

Is it compulsory for Church of Satan members to celebrate Halloween?

“There is no requirement that a Satanist celebrate any holidays, and there are no hard and fast traditions or rites associated with them.”—Church of Satan

What about all those reports of human and animal sacrifices performed on Halloween at the hands of Satanic priests? Are they true?

“No. We are atheists. The only people who perform sacrifices are those who believe in supernatural beings who would consider a sacrifice to be some form of payment for a request or form of worship. Since we do not believe in supernatural beings there is no reason for a Satanist to make a sacrifice of any sort.”—Church of Satan

But what about ghosts, spirits, pumpkins and trick-or-treating? Surely these are of pagan origin!

To understand these, let’s take a look at the source of the holiday.

By Any Other Name

All Saints’ Day (the Solemnity of All Saints) is celebrated on November 1st in honor of all known and unknown saints. An older name for this solemnity is All Hallows—hallows meaning saints or holy people.

The day before All Hallows (November 1) is All Hallows’ Eve (October 31). Over time, All Hallows Eve became Halloween.

All Hallows was originally a moveable feast. In 609, the Byzantine Emperor Phocas gave Pope St. Boniface IV the Pantheon, an ancient Roman temple. He dedicated the temple on May 13 to the Blessed Virgin Mary and martyrs. All Hallows was fixed to this day.

Two hundred years later, Pope Gregory IV transferred the celebration to November 1.

Why the transfer?

In his book Heortology—a history of the Christian festivals from their origin to the present day, Paul Trench gives a reason why the feast was transferred to November 1:

“…since the supply of provisions in Rome in spring was insufficient for the support of both pilgrims and inhabitants, Gregory IV changed the feast from the 13th May to the 1st November.”

Some historians, however, suggest Pope St. Boniface IV did this so the festival would coincide with the Celtic holiday of Samhain. They claim that by Christianizing the pagan festival, Christianity would be more easily accepted by Celts.

There is no historical evidence, however, that Pope Gregory moved the date for this purpose or that he even knew about Samhain. Samhain was celebrated by relatively few people in Northern Ireland and parts of Scotland. I don’t think it would have caught the attention of Pope Gregory in Rome some 1,500 miles away.

In addition, when All Saints’ Day came to be celebrated on November 1, Christianity was well established in the Celtic region for over 300 years. There is no historical evidence that Samhain persisted in a way that challenged Christianity or concerned Christian leaders.

What is Samhain?

Samhain is an ancient three day festival (October 31- November 2) celebrated in the Celtic regions of Ireland and Scotland. The name Samhain is derived from an Old Irish word meaning summer’s end. The celebration marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter.

The Celts believed that during Samhain the veil that separated the living and the dead lifted allowing ghosts to walk the earth.

Most of today’s secular Halloween customs can be traced back to Samhain rituals and superstitions:

  • During Samhain, Celts would hallow out turnips to make lanterns. When the custom reached the U.S., pumpkins were more plentiful and the jack-o’-lantern was born.
  • The Celts thought the “lord of death” sent evil spirits to capture human beings. Thinking that spirits wouldn’t take one of their own, people wore disguises to fool them. This is the origin of donning ghostly costumes.
  • Celts believed spirits were earthbound until they received a proper sendoff with gifts. They were offered sweet treats in exchange for a hasty departure. This practice associated candy with Halloween.
  • The British and Irish had a custom called souling where the poor would go door-to-door and ask for baked pastries called “soul cakes.” In exchange, prayers would be said for the dead of that household. The custom is credited with being the origin of trick-or-treating.

As the centuries passed, these Samhain customs were exported to the New World with a new name, Halloween, which is a contracted form of All Hallows Eve.

So What to Do on October 31st?

Even though Halloween takes its name from All Hallows’ Eve, the current secular holiday has nothing to do with the Christian festival. Neither is Halloween itself a Satanic holiday.

Do demons roam the earth during the Halloween? Absolutely. There is no doubt that evil lurks in the world. In fact, the Prayer to St. Michael explicitly mentions this:

“O Prince of the heavenly hosts, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan, and all the evil spirits, who roam the world seeking the ruin of souls.”

But I don’t think these evil spirits are more or less active on October 31st than any other day.

In my opinion, the majority of people would not be in spiritual peril if they were to celebrate Halloween, but a few may. For example, I have no issues with alcohol abuse. If I choose not to drink, I can visit a pub and not be tempted in the least. Someone struggling with the disease, however, would probably want to steer clear of all bars. Similarly, I have no attraction to the occult, witchcraft or sorcery. Someone who has an affinity for these things might want to curtail their Halloween celebrations:

“Let there not be found among you anyone who causes their son or daughter to pass through the fire, or practices divination, or is a soothsayer, augur, or sorcerer, or who casts spells, consults ghosts and spirits, or seeks oracles from the dead. Anyone who does such things is an abomination to the LORD, and because of such abominations the LORD, your God, is dispossessing them before you.”-Deuteronomy 18:10-12

Nonetheless, if you feel the traditional way of celebrating Halloween is not right for you or your family, there are countless ways to modify its customs:

  • Encourage children to dress up like saints and read stories of their heroic lives.
  • As you carve a pumpkin, tell children that the pulp and seeds are the sin God removes from our lives, the candle is Christ who lives in our hearts and the light is the joy he brings to us and the rest of the world.
  • Hide candy around the house and invite friends with children to have an Easter egg-like hunt. Play games with candy prizes. Involve children in making food and decorations for the event.

If you are on the fence about Halloween, pray about the matter and conduct your own study. Then, follow the convictions of your heart. Whatever your decision, respect the decisions of others who choose to participate or not. It is not our place to judge their motivations or intentions.

How about you? Where do you stand? Do you celebrate Halloween or do you have a “no participation” policy? Do you allow your children to go trick-or-treating or do you provide alternatives like a “Harvest Festival” or similar? Does your parish do anything special? Share and let’s learn together. 

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Dan Gonzalez is both author and designer of the MassExplained blog and MassExplained iPad app. Through fun games and colorful flash cards, Dan's new app, Catholic Word & Games, teaches Catholic vocabulary to children. His design work can be seen at AmpersandMiami.com. Visit AgnusGiftShop.com to browse his Catholic t-shirt line. Dan's reversion story can be read here.

3 Comments

  1. karen

    October 20, 2014 at 4:26 pm

    Great article; thanks for succinctly putting answers to questions that come up every October with friends and family as we prepare for Halloween. It’s hard to remember to not take personally the actions/beliefs of others which are opposite of ours, especially when we all used to share in the fun together. There are so many teachable moments/lessons at this particular time of the season! 🙂

  2. Jeff Burritt

    October 19, 2014 at 6:15 pm

    Nice article Dan. My wife and I have had similar conversations as well. Here’s a video of us discussion whether as Christ’s followers we should participate at all in Halloween. We basically encourage parents not to let their kids and/or society pressure them into allowing Trick or Treating type activities. http://youtu.be/6xEAwZ1XHxs

  3. Rose Marie Doyle

    October 18, 2014 at 11:23 pm

    Good historical account of the origin of Halloween and suggestions of how to celebrate OR NOT. I would add that since Halloween is the eve of “ALL Saints,” by the Holy Spirit’s mysterious ways it corresponds to the Jewish Feast of Booths, a celebration of the Final Harvest, or Sukot. ALL Saints is all about the Final Harvest when every faithful believer will be reunited with God for all eternity.

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