Halloween – what’s a Catholic family to do?

With the holiday of Halloween comes a certain amount of controversy. Is it a religious holiday that Catholics should embrace, or is it a pagan celebration that should be avoided? There are many differing opinions when it comes to Halloween, so we’ve gathered some expert voices to give you a little more knowledge on the subject as you discern how to approach Halloween with your family.

So, what does Halloween have to do with Catholicism? “The origin of candy and trick-or-treating for Halloween has to do with All Souls,” explains Lisa Mladnich, author and regular contributor to Morning Air®. All Saints Day is celebrated on November 1 and All Souls Day is November 2, which makes October 31 the eve of All Saints Day, also known as All Hallows Eve.

She shared a theory that may explain the Catholic roots of Halloween traditions. “Some time in the distant past in the British Isles, a tradition grew up around All Saints and All Souls of begging for soul cakes. Beggars would go door to door on the night before All Saints Day, October 31, and they would knock on the door and this was a tradition so people were expecting them and had baked soul cakes in advance. And they would say, ‘A soul cake, a soul cake, a prayer for a soul cake.’ And when the people would respond with a soul cake, they would say a prayer—a Hail Mary or an Our Father—for the souls of all the dead for that family. This tradition of praying for the souls in Purgatory was very much a part of Catholic culture at that time,” said Mladnich. “Eventually that begging for soul cakes developed into the beggars dressing up as saints to go from door to door. And then during times of persecution of the Church, there were mockeries of that celebration and people would dress up as demons and monsters.”

Others see it as a pagan holiday. How has the Church responded to Halloween traditions? “The Catholic Church, in its wisdom, has never really tried to overly spiritualize the world. In other words, the customs and traditions that cultures had, the Church didn’t try to destroy and wipe them out – they just tried to purify them and make them holy and orientate them towards something good. And if it couldn’t really be orientated toward anything supernatural, at least just to remove elements from it that could be superstitious or be harmful to the individual,” explained Fr. Eric Nielson, pastor of Saint Paul’s University Catholic Center at the University of Wisconsin. He stated in an interview on The Inner Life® that in areas of the country where Christianity was strong, pagan elements of Halloween weren’t necessarily removed, but they were purified to be innocent customs.

Today, Halloween is different; it’s become darker and less innocent. As Halloween has taken a turn toward being more wicked and morbid, what’s a Catholic family to do? There are certain things that Catholics should avoid when it comes to Halloween celebrations, as recommended by Fr. Nielson.

  1. Anything overtly morbid – bodies hanging from trees, severed limbs and other gruesome displays have no place in the Christian life, says Fr. Nielson.
  2. The supernatural and demonic. We don’t want our children to be terrified of the devil, but we also don’t want to instill a curiosity in them for the demonic or witchcraft, which is very dangerous to the Christian soul.

Fr. Steve Grunow of Word on Fire sees Halloween as a great way to embrace the festivities of the Church’s great feast days. “This is meant to be the festive precursor of our celebrations of All Saints Day and All Souls Day. We have to see the distinction here—what Halloween has become in the culture is a lot of frivolity and macabre and ridiculousness, but then we have to look historically at our own Church’s celebration of it’s great feast days which doesn’t mean all you have to do is go to Mass for 45 minutes on the feast day. That’s a rather recent abuse of our liturgical practices as Catholics. Our feast day and holy days are meant to be surrounded by an atmosphere of great festivity.”

This can be a great way to engage the culture and draw them into the celebration of our holy days. “We’ve gotten bad at a sense of public festivity surrounding our religious observances. It’s sort of disabled us in several ways, and one of the most important ways is an outreach to the culture. What are we inviting people into in terms of the celebration of our great feast days? Anything at all?” says Fr. Grunow on A Closer LookTM. “Or is it just minimized to: here’s your obligatory action. Why not throw a party? That’s going to draw people in! That’s what we should be doing as our festive precursor to All Saints Day and All Souls Day. And that recaptures and reignites the real power of Halloween.”

Patrick Madrid, host of The Patrick Madrid Show, does not believe that celebrating Halloween is incompatible with being a Christian. “I certainly would in no way recommend or accept the idea of doing something at Halloween that would glorify witchcraft or Satanism of murder or anything like that,” said Madrid. He does, however, see Halloween as a secularized version of the “Catholic Church’s ancient practice of anticipating this great feast day where we’re honoring the saints.” Madrid and his wife took their kids trick-or-treating but steered clear of costumes that would be anti-Christian or glorify evil.

Some families dress their children up as saints when they go trick or treating. Some parishes throw All Saints Day parties for families to attend. Some families avoid the celebration of Halloween altogether, and others embrace the American traditions of the holiday. With many ideas of how to approach Halloween, it’s up to you to use your best judgment as to what’s best for you and your family. If you aren’t sure, ask the Holy Spirit to guide your decisions and help you to choose the path that will deepen your faith and lead you closer to God.

Lindsey is a wife, mother, and contributing author at Relevant Radio. She holds a degree in Journalism and Advertising from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Lindsey enjoys writing, baking, and liturgical living with her young family.