A reader writes:
I know last year you and I and some others got into an interesting discussion on Santa Claus. And yes, I know it isn’t even September yet but you know the commercial secular world can’t wait to push the next holiday merchandise. I’m already seeing Halloween decor and such on sale and I’ve got to wonder two things about the holiday: 1) What is it’s purpose? 2) Can it be harmful?
I’m not really sure what I feel about Halloween. Let me ramble along and try to sort through all my jumbled thoughts and emotions. Hopefully some of my readers will add their contributions and will help me and each other find clarity. If you’ve seen any good articles on the subject, especially from a Catholic perspective, please include links.
First off, let me state that I have fond memories of Halloween from my own childhood, so my gut reaction is pretty positive. I loved dressing up and I could take up quite a bit of space cataloging all my favorite costumes. I’ve been a bee, a witch, a ghost, an Egyptian princess, a fairy princess, a Renaissance princess, Ophelia, Lady MacBeth, the Snow Queen, and that’s just the ones that come to mind without thinking hard. I loved going trick-or-treating and when I got too old for that I loved answering the door and handing out candy. I’ve enjoyed costume parties and ghost stories and scary decorations and haunted houses and haunted hayrides, bobbing for apples and gorging myself sick on all the loot I hauled home. (And trading candy with my younger siblings who didn’t value chocolate as much as I did.)
I think part of my childhood enjoyment of Halloween was the ritual of the thing. All people, but maybe especially kids, love ritual. We love do things because they’re “what is done,” dressing in a particular way for the ceremony of it, saying the right words at the right time and getting the expected response. It’s a deep desire which the Church in her wisdom recognizes in her liturgies. And it’s not surprising that you find rituals almost as much in secular culture as you do in sacred. The fact that Halloween partakes more of the secular than of the sacred doesn’t bother me. There is room for both sacred and secular rites and rituals and I don’t think a religious person must necessarily shun the secular, even if for many people that same secular ritual has replaced a sacred one. There is surely room for us to have both. Though, I would argue that if there isn’t time in a busy schedule for both, we should give pride of place to Catholic forms of ritual and celebration.
What is it’s purpose? I dunno. Does it have to have one? I guess if it does, it’s to have fun. It’s a totally secular holiday nowadays (if it ever was much more) with a tenuous connection with All Saints Day, that to my mind in small doses is rather fun. It’s a part of my cherished childhood (and I’m a terribly nostalgic person, in case you may not have noticed) and I have a hard time imagining a world without Halloween.
Can it be harmful? Definitely. The most glaring example for me is the bacchanalia that takes place in Salem, MA, where I’ve resided for the past 7 years. Halloween is an excuse for adults to dress in obnoxious, lewd, even sacrilegious costumes, get inebriated and wander the streets aimlessly causing all sorts of crowd-control problems, public indecency, even knife fights and rapes.
But I suspect that’s not the sense in which you meant. I’m guessing you’re thinking more along the lines of whether it is spiritually harmful to kids?
There, I’m not so sure. My gut says on the whole it’s probably not very harmful to children, though of course with the caveat that any good thing can be taken to excess or misused. I know many Catholic parents eschew celebration of Halloween, replacing it with All Saints Day costume parties or with harvest festivals. I see no problem with either idea and in fact think they both sound like fun. Although if you do take that course, of course, you’re left with addressing why we don’t do what all the other kids do. Which as a Catholic you are bound to have to deal with at some point, anyway.
I don’t feel a strong urge to keep Isabella away from Halloween either. I’ve yet to see an argument that convinced me that for her good I should prevent her from trick-or-treating, keep her away from Halloween parties or forbid costumes. However, I also don’t feel a strong urge to make her a costume or to buy one and take her door to door at the tender age of 1 as I’ve seen many folks do.
I have seen little children and young women in terribly immodest clothing. Last year Dom and I were quite shocked at how skimpy many of the girl’s dresses were. We saw boys as young as six or eight dressed as “pimps”. Plus all the horror movie and freak show costumes with far too much blood and gore for my taste. (And yet I did dye my hands red as Lady MacBeth.) I’m also much more conflicted about the whole witch costume thing since living in Salem where so many take wicca and witchcraft seriously. On the one hand, I think dressing up as scary things, ghouls and ghosts and goblins, can be a way of confronting our fears I don’t think it’s necessarily a door into the occult. On the other hand, I’ve seen teenagers in Salem who seriously consider themselves pagans and I’ve seen kids dressing up as witches and vampires because they are enamoured of the occult and fascinated by evil.
I feel much the same way about ghost stories, haunted houses and the like. I think they can be fun and scary. I think they’re like the evil witch or giant or dragon or ogre in the fairy tale and that by having visual representations of evil, by shuddering at it and then laughing about it, can help develop a healthy moral imagination and deal with the harsh reality of the presence of evil in the world. Kids know that bad things happen, they believe in the devil as readily as they believe in God. And for the same reason I’m not about to dispel the belief in angels—because I believe they are real—I think a healthy belief in the real presence of evil spirits in the world is not necessarily a bad thing. (I offer this with the caveat that when children learn this they should be reassured that God is always more powerful than the devil and they should be taught to pray and to call on their guardian angel when they are afraid, especially the St. Michael prayer.) The wicked witch as an icon of evil is not a bad thing either in this world where people call themselves witches and want it to be accepted as just another belief system.
What does it mean when a child dresses up as a witch or a ghost for Halloween? I’ve done both and I’m not sure. Is it a way of facing one’s fears? Is it a way of acknowledging one’s own sinful nature, one’s dark side? Is it flirting with evil? Is it harmless fun with no meaning at all? Are there sinister undertones that should worry a parent? When I was a kid I dressed up as a witch I think mostly because Halloween is about scary stuff and witches are scary and I couldn’t think of a costume and a witch is iconic and all the other girls are going to be princesses and I want to stand out. Or maybe it was simply because I’d seen someone else dressed as a witch. I can’t really reconstruct the me that was a long time ago. I don’t know why I picked that costume; but I’m pretty sure it was harmless.
Anyway this has been a long ramble and I’m not sure I have reached any conclusions. Maybe just set the stage for the beginnings of a conversation.
So, please, tell me: What do you do for Halloween? What do you think about all the various Halloween tradition? What are the problems with Halloween, if any? And what have I missed in my random reflections?