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June 17, 2024

Halloween Hollerin'

By Bernie Pilarski


Wafting on the autumn breeze.

You can smell it. The odor of burning human hair.

Each year, as the days grow shorter, as the green of summer begins to dull, as the night chill begins to work deeper into the bone, as reapers work grimly to gather the harvest before the weather turns irrevocably against them, a small but vocal group of hair-on-fire fanatics begin howling at the Harvest Moon.

"Halloween is evil!" they cry. "It is a pagan feast! It is demon worship! It is the Devil himself stealing our childrens' minds with gifts of candy."

The preoccupation with devils and spirits associated with Halloween, the argument goes, are tell-tale signs of the celebration's pagan roots. Indeed, some of the Halloween customs are pre-Christian -- pagan, yes, but not evil.

Halloween is like Mardi Gras -- both are activities associated with "holy days," times of special significance in the Christian community. Mardi Gras is the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Lent is a forty day season of quiet contemplation and personal sacrifice intended to prepare the believer to be open to and appreciate the significance of the Easter story and its message of the Risen Messiah. Mardi Gras is the last party, the last time of gaiety before the more somber, reflective time of Lent.

Halloween is the evening before the All Saints day (November 1). All Saints Day, or as it used to be known, Allhallows Day, is one of the Church's seven Holy Days of Obligation, days that commemorate significant teachings of the Church. This day, along with All Souls Day (November 2), mark the time in which the Church remembers those who have gone before. The events of the evening before Allhallows Day, Allhallows Eve, or Halloween, help people, especially the young, understand more about the message of the Holy Day.

All Saints Day and All Souls Day fall at the beginning of winter, the season of cold, darkness, and decay. Like the non-Christian feasts that predate the Holy Days, the coming season naturally invites associations with death. The Church's cycle of seasonal holidays attunes the Christian to the cycles of nature. The winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, finds us celebrating the birth of " Jesus -- Light of the World" (Christmas). The spring equinox, with all the promise of new life, is Easter time with its message of the Resurrection -- life conquering death. John the Baptist, who said that he must decrease so that Christ might increase (Jn 3:30), is remembered at the summer solstice, the point at which the days begins to grow shorter. And now in the middle of Autumn, as the light grows dimmer and the air colder, we remember the last things -- death and the world of spirits.

We tell our children not that Halloween is evil, but of the story of the Risen Lord. We tell them that we sometimes dress in devilish garb on this Allhallow's Eve to mock Satan, to celebrate his powerlessness before God and in light of the example of all the Saints who have gone before us.

Admittedly, the religious significance of these celebrations can get lost in the crowd. Mardi Gras can end up being an all day, bare-breasted drunk. And Halloween costumes of ballerinas or baseball stars do not draw easy connections to Satan's minions. (Okay, maybe I have a more generous view of ballet and baseball, but I don't think I'm alone here.)

And could it be that Halloween actually falls on the same day as the feast day of some pagan god? Probably. There are only 365 days to celebrate things, and people have always been to keen to celebrate something. The Roman feast honoring the dead, for instance, was held in late October. Feralia, as it was called, was combined with the harvest festival in honor of Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit trees. It is probably from here the we find apples, especially candied apples, associated with fall festivals.

Actually, it would be difficult to find a culture that does not have a celebration of death at this time of year. It is just that time of year. So when the ghosties, goblins and first basemen show up at your door this year, relax, have fun, and remember to ask them if they have ever thought about their own deaths. (Just kidding.)

If you are curious about Catholic teaching and custom, www.thisrock.com will link you with a site that provides clear, accurate explanations of a variety of topics, and it is free. Or just e-mail me, and I'll be glad to answer you.

Article © Bernie Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2002-10-25
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