Taking Back Halloween

Every year for Halloween I dress up as the same thing:  a priest.  I have been amused over the years how many people have stopped to ask me, on or near October 31st, with complete seriousness, where I found such a realistic priest costume.  This is when I am at the store, usually.  Some people are absolutely mortified when in those conversations I explain that I am, in fact, a Catholic priest.

Around here priests don’t wear their collars much, and most of us are up there in years, and it is apparently also inconceivable that priests buy our own food, so I suppose it makes sense that the average person would think I was wearing a costume during the high Halloween season as they encounter me in the produce aisle.

The sad realization I come to in those moments is that I am yet another icon of the cultural inversion of the Christian message that was, once upon a time, universally understood.  Everyone knew, once upon a time, who priests were and they also knew what Halloween was for.  It was an occasion to pray for the dead- the “eve” of “All the Hallowed,” or, the Eve of All Saints.

Yes, Halloween is (or was) a major Christian feast.  It would not have wound up on our collective calendars otherwise.  Same goes for Christmas, same goes for Easter.

Even with all the pagan trappings that surround Christmas and Easter today in our culture, a kernel of the Christian message still seeps out and is evident in everyday popular observance.

But I think in the case of Halloween, there is not a shred left of it that is recognizable as anything Christian.  When teaching in one of my grade schools a couple years ago, I asked the students to name for me the attributes, or the values, or the things that Halloween glorifies.  We came up with:  “candy,” “receiving,” “scaring,” “costumes,” “death,” and “fun.”   At which point I asked them to explain to me why any serious follower of Jesus would like a holiday like that, and in response I was greeted with silence.

The last value, “fun,” is not so bad in itself.   And it’s true, I am frequently accused of being no fun at all, and I’ve learned to own that with humility, which means therefore I might not be the best, most objective critic of the current version of this holiday.  Fun is an important part of life, and it is true that a little trick, or a small treat, all in good humor are delightful things for a culture to indulge in from time to time.

But do you think we can pull it off without all of the references, even if in cartoon form, to all the dark forces of the underworld?   Fascinating that as a culture we are so mortified of dying, yet we spend every October filling our yards and mantle pieces with, well… death.

We should not fool ourselves into thinking that witches, goblins, and demons are cute or funny.  Such things are better left not played with.   It is hard enough to avoid evil in this life without putting an inflatable version of it out on the porch.

And, fun in moderation is best for the soul.  But Americans do nothing in moderation except for moderation itself.   The volume of Halloween candy given out, the energy put into costumes worn, and the money spent on yard decorations is nothing short of staggering.

I think it is time for Christians to take back Halloween.  What would that look like exactly? A faithful Christian could dress up as a Saint for Halloween, or, at the very least, dress up as something that has nothing to do with goolishness, paganism, mysticism, magic, fantasy, or some vice taken to extreme.   That doesn’t leave much except maybe going to a party dressed as a milk carton, but at least no dabbling in evil would be happening on that front.

It would be good to go door to door not looking for candy but instead offering to pray for whoever opens the door, and telling them about the Saint you are dressed up as.  Or perhaps offering to pray for their dead relatives.

It might be interesting to put out in the yard some sort of marker or reminder of deceased family members so that they can be prayed for during the season, rather than a bunch of skeletons.

And it would be essential to mark November 1st, All Saints Day, as the glorious feast that it is by going to Mass and celebrating everyone’s patron saints as a family over a nice dinner, before heading out the next day, November 2nd (All Soul’s), to the cemetery to visit the graves of the departed.

That would be the Hallows Eve of olden days, back before modernity and Walmart took it over. Less fun than the current version to be sure.  But it would also be a lot less deadly.

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About Father Nathan Reesman

Father Reesman is a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. He is the Shared Pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish, and also of Saint Frances Cabrini Parish, both in West Bend, Wisconsin.
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