Halloween in our Catholic home

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Somewhere between the occult and harvest parties lies what Halloween could and should be.

I used to think that I had to keep all ghosts, witches, and monsters out of Halloween, no matter how cutesy.  I don’t want to foster in my children an interest in the occult and I thought that keeping those things (things I loved before I had kids) out of our home was the best way to do it.  Scary jack-o-lanterns and anything that was too creepy had to go.  But then I realized that I was being unrealistic; my kids are going to see those images anyways and I so I needed to develop a plan for us to be in the world but not of it.

Now of course witchcraft, satan, voodoo, and creepy/mean jokes are bad.  But it’s not necessarily good to completely remove the topic of death, which is what happens with a harvest party – no more skulls, ghosts, or graveyards, just straw bales and caramel apples.  I understand being careful so as to not celebrate evil.  I totally agree that in our culture Halloween is often a glorification of the unholy.  But we shouldn’t sanitize the holiday so much that we remove reality.  As I see it, Halloween offers us the opportunity to openly discuss death and evil  – two subjects most Americans ignore as best they can.

So if my kids and I see tombstones or a ghost (like the giant, blow-up one holding bags of candy and popping out of a pumpkin at our local grocery store) we can talk about how people die, our bodies are buried, and our souls go to Heaven to be with Jesus.  We can discuss how we should pray for the souls of the dead.  We can memorize and recite as a family, “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual Light shine upon them.  May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.” This, of course, is especially appropriate since Halloween directly precedes All Saints Day and All Souls Day.  And as my children age (my oldest is only 3) all of these conversations can grow into discussions about Purgatory and Hell, judgement and salvation, and the resurrection of the dead.

Additionally, something as simple as a jack-o-lantern becomes a great opportunity to teach my children the Gospel.  As the book My Happy Pumpkin (seriously a great resource if you have little kids!) puts it, we pick out a special pumpkin, clean out the goop inside, and let the light shine – sounds like a conversion story to me!  Whether the carving is a smiling face or a scary image we can discuss how the candle is like Christ in our lives, shining out and overcoming the darkness.

In our home some costumes will be off-limits, but that doesn’t mean my kids are stuck being football players or princesses for the rest of their lives.  Halloween, as the eve of All Hallows Day, is a great opportunity to talk about the communion of saints and we will probably find some good costume ideas from them.  I don’t think we should do gore for gore’s sake, but I also think that, in this circumstance, there’s nothing wrong with a little blood.  The martyrs died for their love of Christ.  What a great thing to remind ourselves of as we traipse across the neighborhood.

So maybe we’ll take a white sheet, edge it with blue sharpie and send Mother Teresa out to get candy.  But we might wrap someone up in white rags or toilet paper – not as a mummy – but as Lazarus.  Maybe someone will be Padre Pio, with a black eye from being beat up by satan and hands marked with the stigmata.  I can cover one of my boys in arrows, maybe with some blood dripping from the wounds, and wa-la – St. Sebastian!  If I have a budding make-up artist in one of my kids they could create a wound on my daughter’s neck and she could be St. Cecilia.  If you think this is weird I would like to remind you that images of St. Agatha show her carrying her breasts on a plate.

We’re Catholics, folks.  We own weird, bizarre, and even slightly creepy.  We reverence bone-y relics, we do exorcisms, we have holy cards of St. Peregrine showing off his cancerous leg.  We look death and evil squarely in the eyes and say, “Oh, it’s you” and roll over on our beds to go back to sleep.  We do this because we know that Christ has conquered death.  Mary’s heel is squashing the serpent’s head.  St. Michael has satan in chains, ready to cast him into Hell.

Halloween gives us the perfect chance to talk about these very things – and not just to our children, but to our friends and neighbors.  If we re-claim Halloween we can make it something fun.  We can even make it something triumphant and holy.  That’s so much better than a harvest party.

And now I’d love to hear from you.  How do you celebrate the holiday in your home?  What’s your favorite saint costume?  Halloween is 3 weeks away – there’s plenty of time to snatch an idea from here and create something for trick-or-treating!

Photo credit.

Bonnie Engstrom

Bonnie Engstrom

Bonnie Engstrom is a cradle Catholic and stay-at-home mom. She married her dashing husband in 2006 and they now have five children: one in Heaven and four more wandering around their house, probably eating pretzels found under the couch. Bonnie lives in central Illinois and gets excited about baking, music, film adaptations of Jane Austen books, and the Chicago Bears. She was a cofounder of The Behold Conference and she blogs at A Knotted Life.

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16 thoughts on “Halloween in our Catholic home”

  1. Avatar

    That’s a surprisingly well-reasoned commentary on the subject (not because one expects silliness from the author, but because one has come to expect silliness about Halloween).

    That said, I don’t know that we should be squeamish or disapproving of bones (although some Halloween uses of them are, of course, in poor taste). The end of October would be an excellent time, for instance, to visit the Capuchin crypt in Rome, the Sedlec Ossuary, the Hallstatt (Austria) Ossuary, or one of the several other such places in Christendom.

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    Love this post! You’re probably familiar with the Mexican “Dia de los muertos” (Day of the Dead), right? It’s like (or at least, it used to be like) the Catholic version of Halloween– skeletons, candy, and festivities, but all connected to All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. The origins of the Mexican holiday are pagan, I know, but Catholics managed to baptize it.

    It all reminds me of Chesterton’s poem “The Skeleton”:

    Chattering finch and water-fly
    Are not merrier than I;
    Here among the flowers I lie
    Laughing everlastingly.
    No; I may not tell the best;
    Surely, friends, I might have guessed
    Death was but the good King’s jest,
    It was hid so carefully.

  3. Avatar

    Love “We look death and evil squarely in the eyes and say, “Oh, it’s you” and roll over on our beds to go back to sleep. We do this because we know that Christ has conquered death.”
    So Padre Pio.

    You have inspired me to go all saints this Halloween. I’m thinking Lucy with cute braids and her eyeballs on a tray…And maybe baby Q can be Padre Pio with gloved hands stained with the stigmata…or he’d make a cute St Thomas Aquinas (wasn’t he rotund?)

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    Nooo, only three weeks away? Thank goodness I have my squid hat here at school. >_>; Guess I’ll be cobbling together a costume out of my wardrobe… again.

    I LOVE Halloween. What I don’t love, however, is all the little girls going as Lady Gaga or Hannah Montana or those awful pop stars. Princesses, sure. Dancers, sure. But I cannot BELIEVE some of the things their mothers let them wear out of the house! (and this is coming from a former Ariel-the-mermaid fan.)

    Thought: all the superheroes could be used as examples of helping people in need. (I am a total sucker for a five-year-old in a Batman cape. They’re adorable.)

  5. Avatar
    Jennifer Mazzara

    11-year-old me put the long hair in two [absurdly] high pigtails and went out on Halloween dressed as….Jar Jar Binks. So.

    We’ve never done dressing up at Saints for Halloween, because such a big deal was/is made about All Saints’ Day and the accompanying parties. So there are Saints for then, and pilots or dogs or Gungans for Halloween. We never did scary, but we did do secular. My mom made a careful distinction between the holy day and the holiday.

    Now that there’s someone in my own home big enough to eat candy, a choo-choo shirt and a pumpkin bag are probably going to head into the neighborhood this year, and stock up on candy so I can give it out to my piano students without having to purchase it myself.

    Just kidding.

  6. Avatar

    Titus, Thank you. I know what you mean about not being squeamish about bones and a cartoon skeleton is fine by me. But anything life-like creeps me out. But I get grossed out when I can see thin people’s tendons through their skin. (Like on feet – ewww!)

    Anna, Thank you for sharing that poem. What a treat!

    Lisa, I have no idea what Thomas Aquinas looked like! Hopefully someone else can help you out. 🙂

    Ink, I agree about the superhero comment. Good point. Of course it’s always okay to dress up just for the fun of dressing up, but it is nice to have meaningful conversations about such things, too.

    Jennifer, the Jar Jar Binks costume cracked me up! I like how you said, “my mom made a careful distinction between the holy day and the holiday.” I suppose I’ve decided to roll them all together but I completely appreciate what your mom did. One of the best lessons I’ve learned in my 3 years of motherhood is that there’s more than one way to get it right. I suppose I’m still learning that lesson!

  7. Avatar

    Very good essay. I wrote a similar essay, “Should Christians Celebrate Halloween”. I was tarred and feathered by fellow Catholics for that essay. I merely suggested the same things you suggested.

    Be prepared for a backlash. I will pray that one does not happen.

  8. Avatar

    we have a tombstone (with plot) for St Polycarp and one for St Justin Martyr with a bloody foot sticking out of it (he was beheaded). Both stones have birth and death years on them…I removed the skulls that they came decorated with. I also have a full-sized skeleton sitting and leaning against my oak tree with a small sign showing him to be St. Maximilian Kolbe…he has a 60cc syringe stuck into his breast…(he was starved almost to death and then finished off with a shot of carbolic acid)…in his hand he clutches a crucifix. My large sign says “a solemn Eve of All Hallow’s to all and is decorated with black cob webs and orange lites. On Oct. 31, I plan on lighting about 10 of those saint candles in tall glass containers around the tombstones….cool!

    Years ago, my eldest dressed up in a beautiful hand-sewn roman toga with gold sandals…she carried a small tray with 2 eyeballs (egg shells with iris and cappillaries sharpied in) as a prop…she was St. Lucy. My youngest was dressed as an Indian with moccasins, indian dress and feathered head dress…she was Blessed Kateri.

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    Nice article. The Harvest Party is a bit lame. Our family has spent the last three years putting the holydays in there proper places. As the secular “Halloween” is celebrated mostly after sundown, it conflicts/coincides with the vigil of All Saints. The adult members fast for the three days leading up to the vigil. The younger ones prepare by discussing various saints, death and Heaven. As the sun goes down on October 31st, we light candles, kneel, and begin the Litany of the Saints. Afterwards we turn on the lights and begin the feast of All Saints.

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    While I appreciate your views, and understand your reasoning… I do not understand why I have to participate in Halloween at all. I have been off Halloween since I was a teenager, and was truly appalled at the lawn decor of some neighbors. I do not see why I have to try to alter or cleanse it. I just ignore it. It definitely got harder when I had a child (who is, coincidentally, 3 yrs old now) but I feel it’s important to make the distinction between our culture of life, and the culture of death.

    I am happy to see the topic discussed though, because no matter what side of the fence you are on, at least there is thought and discussion about it, instead of plain acceptance and ignorant participation.

    So essentially, I appreciate your arguments, but will humbly disagree 😉

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    Brother, I will take all the prayers I can get! Thank you for your charity!

    Yvonne, I am really blown away with how your family celebrates the feast. I LOVE the idea of praying the Litany of Saints! What a beautiful holy day.

    Jennifer, I’ll take a respectful disagreement any day. I’m curious what you will do as your children age. I think my kids would feel like they were missing out when the rest of the neighborhood / school is celebrating. I’d love to know your ideas for how you’re going to continue to ignore it when you’re children will be asking about it.

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    Say what you want about Witches, ghosts, and tombstones. But you can never go wrong with pranking your friends and neighbors with electrically engineered trip-wire trashcans

  13. Avatar

    I feel it’s important to make the distinction between our culture of life, and the culture of death.

    This is what we get for not preserving traditions. Halloween is not, at its heart, a fixture of the culture of death. It’s a Catholic folk celebration, the product of a Catholic culture affixing social activities to the liturgical calendar. Look at the word: it’s a condensed portmanteau of “All Hallow’s Eve” (in some European language, at least). Yes, our Catholic ancestors dressed up in costumes, put on scary plays, and had festivities on the vigil of All Saints Day. We are not puritans, nor Manicheans. We can look askance at secular overalys on the celebration, and we can have a reasoned discussion about how best to observe a celebration in today’s world. But we by no means should throw out a good party just because we have forgotten that the Faith existed before 1970.

  14. Avatar

    ‘I totally agree that in our culture Halloween is often a glorification of the unholy.’ You guys really don’t have much material or substance.

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