Restoring Halloween to the Domestic Church

Halloween always seems to bring out strong and often starkly opposing positions among my fellow traditional Catholics. Some avoid the holiday like the plague, while others attempt to restore some Christian meaning to it. Everyone, however, is agreed that its demonic excesses—and I don’t even know if it’s proper to call them excesses anymore since they are now sadly ubiquitous in this culture—must never be allowed anywhere near the Christian home.

This year my kids asked me about the gory billboards that had sprung up in our area. These ads promoted haunted houses and hotels of horror, with tortured characters pulled straight from Dante’s Inferno. We can keep that out of our homes of course, but it seems impossible to avoid in the culture at large even in somewhat rural areas. So it is our responsibility, then, to teach our children the context of these advertisements. And this year, echoing thoughts I wrote last year on the topic, I told my children that everyone spends their time on earth practicing for life in heaven or hell, and that everyone eventually winds up in the place that they already feel most comfortable in.

It is a mistake for us to bowdlerize modern American Halloween, to treat it as if it were still the 1950s Peanuts version, a harmless festivity of cute little witches and ghosts. I’ve made this mistake myself at times. No—whatever it was, and whatever it may still be in some circles, much of it now really has become hellish—and children cannot fail to notice that. The ghoulish iconography of the apostate version of Halloween needs to take its place alongside medieval depictions of infernal torment or paintings of the Last Judgment—as a stark warning of what will become of each of us if we purge supernatural grace from our souls. We are losing a catechetical opportunity if we do not use these images for meditation on the Four Last Things.

All that notwithstanding, I have definitely been in the recovery and restoration camp with regard to Halloween. Its name points unmistakably to its Catholic origins, and there is no reason to think it cannot be truly Catholic again despite its modern deformations. Recently I was delighted to see, flipping through the Marquess of Bute’s early twentieth century English translation of the Roman Breviary, an unmistakably clear link between the feast day and the liturgy:

Halloween Propers of the Roman Breviary, translated into English by John, Marquess of Bute (1908)
But of course a retained name is not enough to justify Catholics’ participation in the modern holiday. The larger question is, as John Horvat II has just asked in an excellent article for Crisis, Can Halloween be Christianized Again?

I am in complete agreement with Horvat that the key to restoring Halloween to its Christian roots lies firstly in recognition of it as the scene of a furious spiritual battle, and secondly in the unmistakably Catholic and charitable custom of the “soul cake”—which was so fixed in the minds of Englishmen that centuries of Protestant browbeating against Purgatory could not eradicate it. The folk custom, which was called "souling" and goes back to pre-Reformation days, was this: you would visit a house, the residents would give you a soul cake, and in return you would pray for their dead.

I haven’t run across too many locals making soul cakes. I am sure that custom could be recovered, but we are not quite there yet. In the meantime, the other externals of the folk custom—going door to door begging for treats—are still very much alive. American gluttony and greed at least preserved those, even if our nation’s corrosive lowest-common-denominator Protestantism has completely eaten away the charm of Merrie Olde England.

This preservation of externals means, however, that the Catholic family can still keep this feast in a truly Catholic way. All that is required is to restore its lost heart. We need to fill the hollowed-out commercialized shell with its original, and fully liturgical, intent: to exchange gifts with our neighbors in exchange for prayers for the dead.

Does it matter what these sweets are, for that noble and charitable purpose? Will your prayers be less efficacious over a Snickers bar as they will over a proper soul cake?

This year, as in years past, we will accompany our children door to door on October 31st. We have no strict rules about costumes, as long as they are innocent of anything evil or demonic. At the end of the night we will count up the treats received—a natural enough activity anyway for a child suddenly enriched by a plastic pumpkin load of sweets.

But this counting serves a higher purpose than gluttonous revelry. It turns those treats into an impromptu chaplet—a Halloween sacramental with edible beads, as we recite the “eternal rest” prayer as many times for all the departed of every house we have visited.

Keeping Halloween Catholic means simply keeping up our end of the old English folk bargain. It means doing for each other in our domestic churches, in a small way, what we ask our priests to do at our parish altar on All Souls’ Day.

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