As the end of the month nears, we see preparations for Halloween or All Hallows Eve, the day before the feast of All Hallows or All Saints. This celebration has become popular across the globe, even in this country, where it has taken root only in the past decade or so.
Growing up back in the 1950s and 60s, we heard of Halloween only from grade school storybooks and the tales of relatives and friends from America. Instead of Halloween, we Filipinos then had Pangaluluwa. Groups of young people went house to house singing “Kaluluwa’y dumaratal sa tapat ng durungawan…” (Souls are coming to your window…), expecting to be given slices of rice cake called sinukmani, cooked for holy souls visiting on the eve of Todos los Santos on November 1.
Today, all that is gone. In its place, we have Halloween, Trick-or-Treat, and masquerade balls of revelers dressed as creatures of darkness. Irish immigrants are said to have introduced the tradition to America, reprising the household practice in Ireland of leaving pastries at the doorstep on October 31 for druids and other prowling spirits to eat and thus leave the home alone.
Damien Le Guay, a French philosopher and literary critic, calls Halloween the “Feast of the Empty Pumpkin.” It is one more imported holiday thrust upon us by media and marketing, greatly feeding our consumerist frenzy. We accept the practice with nary a thought about the subliminal effect it has on our children and our religious and moral consciousness.
Let us reflect on some thoughts from Le Guay concerning this originally religious feast turned into a secular holiday, much like Christmas and St. Valentine’s Day.
His first insight is the complacent passivity in all strata of society. In the name of innocent fun, too often we embrace everything uncritically. As Christians we do not even question what is going on. One example is the secular feast of Halloween.
Le Guay’s second thought is the degradation, or worse, the demeaning of the Solemnity of All Saints and the Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed. There is in Halloween the idea of a feast, but emptied of all religious significance and reduced to its bare externals.
Just like its pumpkins gaudy but empty, Halloween, he wrote, “exposes all the ‘danger’ of the postmodern ideology of holidays: the reasons for the feast are gone, there remains only the feasting and celebration: a sort of practice without theory, action without reason, a battle without visible adversary.”
His third thought: “The most distressing aspect of Halloween is its spiritual poverty and the symbolic danger that constitutes it.” Le Guay deplores “spiritual poverty”, because this Halloween revival has been stripped of all its meanings in past centuries.
Thus, our postmodern Halloween paganizes a Christian feast. Everything is recast as a mask and mockery—even the fear of death—because it is precisely the reality of death, forcibly hidden for a good part of the year, that the original All Hallows Eve exorcised in an ambiguous collective ritual, almost a celebration of eternal youth, which seeks to take flight from ageing and getting old.
A further consideration, quite alarming, is that behind the masquerade of witchcraft and evil — presented as something fun not to be taken seriously — is a dramatically increasing phenomenon: occultism. Just consider the worldwide fascination with vampires, werewolves, zombies, wizards and witches in books, movies and TV.
Although Halloween does not explicitly promote it, on that night occultism occurs more and more. Many commentators on the occult have cited October 31 as the “Major Sabbath” day of Samhain, described by one writer as “the Illuminati’s highest human sacrifice day” and “Satan’s birthday”.
The last point we need to seriously ponder is that Halloween has become a holiday aimed at children. This imparts to their imagination strong suggestions that form a thick curtain of symbols associated with the afterlife which is not at all Christian. If Halloween is here to stay as a regular occurrence, some thought has to be given to the ideas we want our children to associate the event with.
So what can we do?
First and most important is the promotion of positive, proactive attitudes. For us Christians and Catholics, it means witnessing, even before challenging, this emerging phenomenon. A first step is having the knowledge and information to consciously discern the signs of the times, as the Lord Jesus says (Luke 12:56). The sudden imposition of a mass phenomenon such as Halloween cannot pass by unnoticed and ignored, unless we have sunk into resignation or complacency. We must have the courage to ask: What is really, truly celebrated on Halloween?
The second thing that can be done is to restore the value of the Solemnity of All Saints in a renewed catechesis on the mysteries of the Last Things of the Christian faith: death, judgment, Heaven and Hell. The liturgy prepares us for the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed to celebrate the communion of the whole Church — of us still on earth who are wayfarers, with those who are yet undergoing purification, and those who already contemplate God. The celebration reminds us of our common vocation to holiness, and strengthens us by a communion of spiritual goods.
This indestructible union binding us with the holy souls in purgatory and the saints in heaven is a message of hope far more liberating than any exorcism of the afterlife: on the night when Halloween lets loose our inner ghosts, the Church invites us instead to meditate not on death, but on eternal life. Pausing and contemplating the ultimate horizon of our life is the encouragement we need to dispel demons and fears.
Lastly, concerning children who are the inevitable target of Halloween. The role of parents here is irreplaceable. Schoolteachers and catechists can certainly help the young, but parents especially have the responsibility to guide their offspring toward a gradual but peaceful awareness of the mystery of death.
One way is the visit traditionally paid to our deceased loved ones in the cemetery. Another is telling stories about how our dearly departed lived; if the children never knew them, showing their photographs would help. Teaching them to pray for the dead with serene confidence will also develop a Christian vision of the afterlife, which is vital, felt, and integrated at the emotional level. Finally, children’s relationship and bonding with elders and grandparents in a special way is to be highly encouraged.
With these thoughts, let us prepare ourselves for the coming celebration of the Solemnity of All Saints and the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed.
Laudetur Iesus Christus!
(Fr. Tim J.M. Ofrasio, S.J. teaches systematic theology at Loyola School of Theology, with interests in Christian worship, art, music, churches and formation.)