Alas, it is that time of year again when certain suburban moms across America log onto the neighborhood Facebook group to request that Halloween trick-or-treating be moved to a different day so that their kids won’t be out on a school night.
This request is blasphemous, Protestant, and—perhaps worst of all—bureaucratic. Let me explain.
First, it is blasphemous, because proponents of moving Halloween seek to put asunder that which God has joined together, namely, All Hallows’ Eve (or Hallows’ Even, or Halloween) and All Hallows’ Day (also known as All Saints’ Day). Just as naturally as a tadpole becomes a frog and overindulgence in Tootsie Rolls becomes a stomachache, the eve or vigil flows into the feast. It is well known that ancient Jewish feasts began at sundown the evening before, and even today, the Church universally shows that Sundays and major feasts begin at Vespers the evening prior. To trick-or-treat after dark on October 31 is, therefore, meet and just.
In fact, to trick-or-treat, or do any other Halloweeny thing on any day besides October 31, would be utterly nonsensical. The feast of All Saints is an immovable one, so it would take a formal act of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops even to allow your local bishop to move the feast to a different day, let alone a lay person. (The obligation to attend Mass is abrogated if the feast falls on a Saturday or Monday, but that is not the same.) Do these neighborhood parents think they have the authority to override Mother Church and our good Bishops on the matter of feast days and their eves? It is exactly the same as if they asked the neighborhood to move Christmas to avoid it overlapping with their child’s birthday, or to move Saturday so that it follows Wednesday.
“You’re right,” some Christian scold will say, “we shouldn’t move Halloween, because we shouldn’t celebrate it at all. It’s pagan.” No, sir, it is not. Read the previous paragraphs again. Arguing that Halloween is pagan is the same as arguing that Christmas is pagan (and plenty of Protestants do both). Costumes and bonfires and sweet treats are not pagan, but human, and therefore Christian, when used to celebrate true and holy things. Catholics ought to understand this, because our faith is so unabashedly physical. If we are to smell the incense of sacrifice, we must also frolic around a bonfire. If we are to taste the sweetest Manna, the very Flesh of Our Lord, we must also feast on candy.
Your moderate cousin will say, “I let my children trick-or-treat, but only as Marvel superheroes and Disney princesses; no icky, scary costumes!” Why, Miss Moderate? Why deprive them of an excellent opportunity to develop fortitude and have a rollicking good time? Humans have a deep-seated attraction for the gruesome and creepy and violent, something Aristotle seemed to recognize when he said that tragedy plays are supposed to effect catharsis of the feelings of pity and fear. To this day, we watch horror movies and ride rollercoasters and somehow take pleasure in being frightened. Like all pleasures, this can be overindulged, but it can also be baptized and rightly ordered.
After all, where do we Catholics hear the most stories of violent, gruesome deaths? In the martyrology, of course. As a child growing up in the Catholic homeschool group, I attended many an All Saints’ Day party at which we dressed up as saints and then played a version of twenty questions to get the other kids to guess who we were (the Halloween costume phenomenon, continued into the day-of).
There was always a boy stuck full of toy arrows (or Nerf darts, perhaps), going as St. Sebastian; what boy doesn’t want to tape half an arrow to either side of his head and paint on a few bloody wounds? There was usually a girl dressed as St. Joan of Arc: what could be easier or more fun than to borrow her brother’s toy armor, or a lot of her mother’s aluminum foil? At least once, I saw an excellent St. Lucy, carrying her eyeballs on a dish, and I wish more girls would do it. (It strikes me now that one could borrow some props from a lactation consultant and go as St. Agatha, although I think some homeschool moms might have put the kibosh on that particular expression of piety.) There were always some tamer Mother Teresas and Virgin Marys (Virgins Mary?) too, of course, but children’s desire for the dramatic is insatiable.
Once you start considering martyrs as costumes, the possibilities are endless. A boy might make an excellent St. Barnabas—who was skinned alive in the course of his martyrdom, and is thus portrayed holding his own skin—by dressing all in red from head to toe, and carrying a second suit of clothes in some flesh-like color, or maybe a deflated one of those obnoxious inflatable characters people put on their front lawns as holiday decorations (okay, some Halloween “traditions” need to disappear). If it’s heroes and princesses and exotic characters you want, try St. Elizabeth of Hungary in a stunning medieval dress and crown, or St. George with a stuffed dragon, or St. Catherine Labouré in a cornette, or St. John Bosco with his juggling balls.
If this all sounds too complex, consider some more generic possibilities. A skeleton suit? The bones of the martyrs! A classic white-sheet-with-eye-holes ghost costume? One of the holy souls in purgatory! (Their day, after all, is directly after All Saints’ Day. In Hispanic culture, it’s Día de los Muertos, that glorious festival of flowery skeletons, mingling death and life, the grave and the garden.)
Catholicism is fabulously frightening, far more so than today’s commercialized creepiness. And for good reason, because Catholicism knows that moral evil is terribly, horribly evil and can send souls to hell. But we also know that facing the physical evils of torture and death are the quickest way to the Eternal Feast. Children must learn this through play-acting, as they learn all important things. They must learn to get shivers up their spines at the idea of St. Denis carrying his own head to his execution-place, but also to embrace his bravery and laugh at evil in their turn. (A headless horseman costume could be modified easily.)
I do not recommend dressing up as a demon or a witch; some good Catholics, smarter than I, may argue that it’s fine to do so, but I shy away from having children portray real persons who are evil, the opposite of the martyrs and souls we celebrate. (Even Plato says that those who portray evil onstage may begin to imitate it in real life.) But it should be clear by now that the costume possibilities are many, and suddenly, the traditional American Halloween as the Catholic All Hallows’ Eve is perfectly easy to understand.
So, the Halloween-movers and Halloween-cancelers do not have authority or tradition on their side. But do they have reason? Is it, perhaps, impractical to have children going out on a school night, and practical to adjust the tradition to another day? Not at all. I may not be a parent, but I have been a child, and I know that it will not harm your kids one bit to stay out late on a school night just once in a year. In fact, it will probably do them much graver harm to let them imbibe the notion that the Church’s liturgical feasts are subordinate to the secular school schedule. (Reminder: they are not.)
If we were a civilized, Christian society, we’d all get the holy day off. But we are not a civilized Christian society, obviously, and we are forced to work and go to school on November 1—forced to blaspheme the Holy Day of Obligation. Or are we? Parents, what is there to stop you taking the day off work and keeping your kids out of school that day? If you’re afraid to do that or truly can’t because you’re a paramedic, the next best thing is to let your kids party it up the night before. It’s the Catholic thing to do.
So. Halloween is Catholic, and the evil forces that oppose it are either blasphemous secular society or mistaken though well-intentioned Protestant culture. Or, they are Socialism—or, at least, its close cousin, bureaucracy. These Facebook moms talk of moving Halloween as if it’s a PTA meeting. They talk of making and unmaking trick-or-treating as if they invented it. We echo the words of the Lord to the scriptural Job and ask, “Where were you, O Marge, when Halloween was established?” Nowhere, because Halloween was not established. It was not formed by committee, subject to change or cancelation without warning. It arose naturally and organically from the truths of our faith and the wholesome sense of fun we all ought to have, but have apparently forgotten.
O tempora, o mores! God, forgive us! Move Halloween! Trick-or-treating is the last, almost the very last bit of real culture in this society. By culture, I mean something festive that people do together with their neighbors, yet spontaneously. It’s the last thing unfettered by the tyranny of regulation that plagues every aspect of modern life. Gone are the traditions of our other holidays. Amateur fireworks? Too dangerous. Christmas caroling? Disturbing the peace. Trick-or-treating remained fairly unscathed, despite many fake scares about poisoned candy and shamefully well-orchestrated trunk-or-treats in school parking lots. Now, the blasted bureaucracy is coming for that, too. Resist, my friends, resist.
Last year, the CDC did its darndest to cancel trick-or-treating because of the risk of contagion with the coronavirus. This year, let’s do our darndest to infect our neighborhoods with a proper sense of joy. Bedeck your children in all manner of gruesome, saintly costumes and send them forth to collect a double portion of the spoils. The next day will be Monday, but if anyone mentions it, leave her with all the banana Laffy Taffy. And pray for her soul.
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