It’s that season of the year again. So, I guess I can repost on my blog an article I had written six years ago. The original article was posted on 31.10.2011 as part of the Fresh Thinking series on the Jesuits in Malta website. [JMB, 25.10.2017]
The run-up to the feast of All Saints has rekindled, within Church circles in Malta, the debate on Halloween. It is worth offering a reflection on a possible critical pastoral outlook, reclaiming positive values that the feast itself might have, while indeed curtailing negative dimensions that may have crept in.
The origins of the feast itself are pre-Christian, linked to the progressive shortening of daytime, with the apparent victory of darkness over light. Ancient mythology would have understood it as the night when humanity is particularly in danger, when evil spirits from the underworld are freer to roam and assault humanity, as the cosmic barriers that are usually in place are unable to contain them. Yet, it is not a celebration of evil, but rather an urgent awareness of the need to hem the powers of darkness in, until, with the winter solstice and the progressive lengthening of the day, light once more emerges victorious. As Catholic tradition has often done, the ancient commemorations that reflect the cycles of nature have not been suppressed, but rather integrated and evangelised: the victory of light over darkness is linked to the birth of Jesus Christ, Light of the world; while the fear of darkness and death, and the consequent need to guard ourselves, linked to the commemoration of All Saints and All Souls.
Read in this light, the ancient customs linked to the dead were read within a Christian context, as reflected in the very name itself, All Hallows’ Eve (eventually, Halloween), i.e. the vigil of All Saints. So, as aptly summarised by John McDade, “on All Hallows’ Eve, people are meant to go out into the streets in scary costumes and make loud noises to frighten the devils away and to enact annually the victory of holiness over evil.” (ThinkingFaith, 28-10-2011)
On the better side of its tradition, Halloween is the night when to look at death in the face and not be afraid – which to the Christian has a profound meaning in that Life has won over Death in Jesus Christ. Dressing up as ghosts and the undead was not understood as embracing the very powers of darkness, but rather re-enacted in a mythological manner the battle of darkness against light, but where light has already emerged victorious – which is why the imagery of lanterns and light is such an integral part of Halloween.
So is there any harm in dressing up as ghost and zombies, in carving pumpkins, and going to a Halloween party? Why do some Christians, all over the world, look at the feast with suspicion, if not complete opposition? Are there any dangers?
It necessarily depends on the way it is celebrated. Due to its link with the dead, it can become an excuse for emphasising violence, fear and the occult. While not naively excluding that such behaviour may indeed occur, I feel it necessary to point out that such is a perversion of Halloween itself, and should not be linked necessarily to the feast. An over-reaction in this regard, actually helps give Halloween an occult meaning it is not meant to have.
Perhaps a more subtle danger is the reduction of the celebration to utter meaninglessness: where Darkness and Light have lost their significance, where excessive commercialisation and trivialisation has robbed the feast of any deeper sense.
Ironically, Halloween – rather than feared and demonised – may be reclaimed, providing an opportunity to look, even with a strong sense of humour, at death and evil in its face, not in spite of, but precisely because of the Christian outlook we embrace, where we are fully aware of the victory of Christ over evil and death.