Debate rages every October over the meaning of Halloween – literally, “All Hallows’ Eve” – and how to celebrate it.
Some people consider it a Celtic pagan festival hijacked by the Catholic Church. North Americans see it as a candy-filled costume party imported by 19th century Irish Catholic immigrants.
Where does the truth lie?
And what does it mean for us in Singapore?
Halloween is (Culturally) Catholic
Contrary to popular belief, the Catholic Church did not invent the Feast of All Saints to “baptise” the pre-Christian tradition of Samhain. Ireland had celebrated All Saints on April 20 for at least a century before Pope Gregory III decreed in the eighth century that the whole Church would celebrate it on 1 November – the date he dedicated a chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica to all the saints.
Nor is it true that Halloween customs like dressing up and begging for “soul cakes” came from Celtic traditions of hiding from (or appeasing) the pagan gods who walked the earth at Samhain. These practices appear only in the Middle Ages, after the Church instituted the Feast of All Souls. “Halloween” probably evolved as the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory mingled with Celtic myths about Samhain, resulting in the muddled belief that the souls of the dead returned on All Hallow’s Eve in need of prayers.
The Halloween of witches, ghosts, and skeletons has gone global thanks to American pop culture. Even those in Europe and Australia have voiced bewilderment at the phenomenon, and how divorced it is from the Feasts of All Saints and All Souls that follow.
But Halloween is controversial today because of its increasingly macabre and occult character. Once a cute children’s celebration, Halloween festivities now stress the gory and terrifying. Zombies, mutilated corpses and supernatural horrors have become commonplace in the last two decades.
Occult practices have gone mainstream, perhaps due to the 1980s revival of Wicca (pagan witchcraft) in the West. Locally, some public organisations have put up posters and banners advertising tarot card reading as part of their Halloween celebrations.
The way the world celebrates Halloween – by glorifying death, darkness and witchcraft – is a gross perversion of both the Irish Catholic and pre-Christian Samhain traditions. It undermines Church teaching by depicting the dead as disgusting and evil, rather than as the Holy Souls in Purgatory who need our prayers.
Reclaiming the Night
With Halloween growing in popularity as a secular festival, Catholics around the world have been fighting to keep the “Hallow” in “Halloween” by putting the focus back on the saints. Children who want to dress up are encouraged to do so as saints and other virtuous Catholics, rather than as vampires or wizards. In Singapore, the first public “Party with the Saints” organised in 2016 saw a turnout of around 50 children.
The success of the “Party with the Saints” has inspired local parishes and schools to organise similar events. St. Anthony’s Canossian Primary School has an annual family Mass where the students attend dressed as saints, while St. Joseph’s Institution (Junior) held its inaugural Super Saints Party in 2018.
Our Catholic Identity
Do I consider Halloween a religious festival, or a secular Western one?
Would I celebrate Halloween – and if yes, in what way?
Is it OK for Catholics to dress up at Halloween as supernatural or horror characters?
Why has Halloween gotten so ghoulish in recent years? Does this pose any spiritual threat? What should Catholic parents do if their child or teen wants to celebrate Halloween? Stay tuned…