By Fr. André Semeni
Halloween is celebrated every year on October 31, the eve of the solemnity of All Saints. But when we think of Halloween, what pops up to our mind? For a lot of people, Halloween is synonymous with candy, costumes, scary stuff, witches, ghosts and pumpkins. When we take a glimpse at the Philippines national newspapers, especially the Philippines Daily Inquirer (PDI), we quickly spot the significance of this event as a time of shopping, parades in Malls, watching scaring movies like “Aswang.” From October 29 to 31, in all supermalls throughout the Philippines, we are all invited to experience the thrill of shopping and dinning in, to “Enjoy the coolest tricks and most exciting treats” and to have the thrill of our life with spooky Halloween events like “Howl-o-ween Costume Contests,” “Ha! Ha! Halloween Costume Contest,” “It’s All Treats,” “Cosplay at SM Cyberzone.” To put it more clearly with designer Catherine Janelle: “Halloween is about having fun with costumers, so pick a character you can relate to. Act like your character… It’s the way you act while in character that will make it more recognizable” (PDI, October 28, 2011, G4).
But do we know the Christian connection to this celebration? How can we Catholics meaningfully celebrate Halloween in the context of our Christian faith and belief? Although Halloween may seem like a secular holiday, and in many ways and in many countries it has become so, there are distinctly Christian aspects to the holiday that we and our family can celebrate.
First of all, let us recall that Halloween originated with the ancient Celtic tribes who lived in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Brittany. For the Celts, November 1 marked the beginning of a New Year and the coming of winter. The night before the New Year, they celebrated the festival of Samhain, Lord of the Dead. During this festival, Celts believed that the souls of the dead, including ghosts, goblins and witches, returned to mingle with the living. In order to scare and chase away the evil spirits, people would wear masks and light bonfires…
When the Romans conquered the Celts, they added their own touches to the Samhain festival, such as making centerpieces out of apples and nuts for Pomona, the Roman goddess of the orchards. The Romans also bobbed for apples and drank cider, an alcoholic drink made from the fermented juice of apples… But where does the Christian aspect of the holiday come into play? In fact, in the year 835, Pope Gregory IV moved the celebration for all the martyrs (later All Saints) from May 13 to November 1. The night before became known as Halloween. According to Sister Maureen Shaughnessy, Assistant Secretary for Catechesis and Leadership Formation for the Catholic U.S. Bishops’ Department of Education, “Halloween gives us the opportunity to help people of all ages reconnect with the Christian understanding of this very popular holiday. Originally this day was celebrated by the Celts in England and Ireland as the end of their year. On that day they remembered all those who had died during the past year.” Indeed, the purpose of these celebrations, namely Halloween, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day is to remember those who have died, whether they are officially recognized by the Catholic Church as Saints or not. They are celebrations of the communion of saints, which reminds us that the Church is not limited or restricted by time or space. Let me quote directly from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC): “In the communion of saints, “a perennial link of charity exists between the faithful who have already reached their heavenly home, those who are expiating their sins in purgatory and those who are still pilgrims on earth. Between them there is, too, an abundant exchange of all good things.” In this wonderful exchange, the holiness of one profits others, well beyond the harm that the sin of one could cause others. Thus recourse to the communion of saints lets the contrite sinner be more promptly and efficaciously purified of the punishment for sin” (CCC, no. 1475).
As we celebrate Halloween at the eve of All Saints, many parishes and Catholic schools in the Philippines use this opportunity to have young people connect to the lives of saints – their own name saints or patron saints connected to their parishes or Catholic backgrounds. Since these feasts fall during the semester break, they also provide a precious time for storytelling, dressing up, visiting relatives, praying for the departed members of the family and celebrating in the cemeteries. “Filipino Catholics are culturally attuned to communion with the saints, communion with the departed, in one family of God. November 1-2 are National Holidays in our country, showing how much Filipinos “cherish the memory of the dead with great piety, offering prayers for them because it is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead” (2 Mc 12:46) (cf. LG 50). Yet we must beware of abuses, excesses or defects which may have crept in” (Catechism for Filipino Catholics, no. 1430).
As Christians, knowing that media-driven consumption patterns and self-obsessed lifestyles are signs of abuses and defects, we are reminded that, “the authentic cult of the saints consists not so much in the multiplying of external acts, but rather in the greater intensity of our love, whereby, for our own greater good and that of the whole Church, we seek from the saints “example in their way of life, fellowship in their communion, and aid by their intercession”… Let them teach the faithful that our communion with those in heaven, provided that it is understood in the fuller light of faith according to its genuine nature, in no way weakens, but conversely, more thoroughly enriches the latreutic worship we give to God the Father, through Christ, in the Spirit” (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, no. 51).