ASK FATHER: Why do traditional Catholic “white wash” Halloween?

From a reader…


It surprises me how popular it’s becoming among traditional Catholics to “white wash” Halloween. It’s certainly not traditional! The 3 days of this time have always represented a trilogy –Hell, Heaven, and Purgatory. A time to reflect on the realities of each. The spookiness of Halloween is not a worship of Satan or the occult (although some may choose to do that) but a reminder of the very realness of evil and hell.
I’m so puzzled by what seems a very Protestant reaction to Halloween among traditional Catholics….am I wrong?

GUEST RESPONSE from a long-time contributor here Fr. Tim Ferguson:

The author has a point – the three days of All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day really should be looked at together. The traditions of dressing up in spooky clothes on Halloween has a long history. Fr. Augustine Thompson, O.P., a frequent commenter here, and a good friend of mine wrote what I believe is the definitive internet expose of the Catholic origins of our Halloween traditions. HERE

Frankly, I’d be happier to see children dressed up as ghosts and ghouls on Halloween, rather than the more recent trend of “sexy pirate,” “sexy cat,” “sexy hobo,” “sexy nun,
” and “sexy Hungarian hussar.” The collegiate/Hollywood extrapolation of Halloween as an excuse to wear next to nothing, get wildly intoxicated, and pretend that we’re wanton animals with no control over our passions is more troublesome to me than any threat posed by little George and Jeanette dressed as a werewolf and a vampire princess.

At the same time, I think seeing kids dressed up as their favorite saint is cute. Perhaps not something with a very long tradition, but cute, and praiseworthy. On the one hand, seeing a small child as Padre Pio can have the salubrious effect of bringing to mind the four last things. On the other hand, looking at our contemporary culture, what frightens it more than seeing a horde of young children, being raised as faithful Catholics, taking their faith seriously out in the streets with pumpkin buckets. Seeing a dozen youngsters, homeschooled and from the same orthodox parents, would surely cause gasps of fright from the Democrat, Planned-Parenthood maven driving through town in her hybrid. Imagine the look of horror on the face of the “recovering Catholic” who sees the van doors open and the Lumpenbraat children, all dressed as the Theban Legion (before they were stripped of their uniforms, of course) pour out? Consider the fright and discomfort caused to the Unitarian Universalist pastor who preaches a watered-down Gospel when his front porch is invaded by little  John Paul II’s, little Mother Teresas, little Vincent Ferrers, little Thomas More and John Fisher, and a troop of the Martyrs of Otranto.

Society does quite a bit to scare us faithful Christians, perhaps on Halloween, we can return the favor.

Fr. Tim Ferguson

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Clinton R. says:

    I would love to see Halloween reclaimed as a Catholic holiday. In today’s secular society, our holidays are only associated with the following: Halloween-wearing costumes and getting candy. Christmas-Santa Claus. St. Valentine’s Day-candy and flowers. St. Patrick’s Day-drinking copious amounts of beer. Easter-the bunny and chocolate eggs.

    I give so much credit and great admiration to families who celebrate All Hallow’s Eve for what it is, the beginning of the triduum that includes All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Until 1955, it there was an octave and a Vigil of All Saint’s Mass. Unfortunately, they were abrogated by Pope Pius XII.

    To paraphrase Trump’s campaign slogan; “Make Halloween Catholic again”.

  2. Mariana2 says:

    One good thing about living here in Scandinavia – no Halloween sillyness. It’s a day for visiting graves in the twilight and putting candles on them. Walking around cemeteries and admiring the lights (and praying for our dead) simply does not go together with witches and ghouls. Also it’s too cold for any skimpily clad witches or ghouls : ).

  3. guans says:

    I clicked on Fr. Thompson’s link above, then on: and then on:
    Definitely belongs in the “Ultimate Cool File” Perhaps on Fr’s wish list too.
    (and maybe the picture could be sold as All Saints Day greeting cards too)

  4. bobk says:

    Not to stigmatize (!) Fr. Ferguson, but he is the one who mentioned a Padre Pio costume and then said “on the other hand…..” Wow. Anyway, one idea I find refreshing using the Eastern calendar is that All Saints Day is the first Sunday after Pentecost. Would you believe we got precisely zero kids coming to the door Saturday night this year? We had to eat all the chocolate ourselves. The Padre costume is a fine idea. Dress two boys in identical outfits. When someone asks if they’re both the same person, say no, there’s only one guy. He tends to be in two places at once.

  5. tealady24 says:

    Halloween in America has just taken on the sicker aspects of our culture and I for one HATE HATE HATE it! What is wrong with this idiot culture we live in when adults ( at least that’s what they call themselves), parade around the neighborhood with their kids looking like the latest in ghoulish drag. It would be fun to see more saints in the mix, but that kind of thinking too gets lost in the translation of the moment. Why have respect for the dead when we can all be the undead, at least for a day!

  6. APX says:

    Also it’s too cold for any skimpily clad witches or ghouls : ).

    Growing up in the prairies of Canada, I rarely had a Halloween with no snow. I remember one year with no snow, but still cold. Our costumes were designed to fit over our winter parkas and ski pants.

  7. Legisperitus says:

    Thank you, Fathers!

    Regarding Fr. Thompson’s article, I’d like to throw in a mention of Stuart Piggott’s 1968 book “The Druids,” which examines the available information about the historical Druids and their modern namesakes (those goofballs who swarm Stonehenge every June) and basically puts the kibosh on any claims that the so-called Druidic tradition of today is any more than a century or two old.

  8. Lucas Whittaker says:

    There is something to be said for disregarding Halloween, when considering that it has become–in American secular culture, to be sure–totally disconnected from any reasonable reflection on heaven, hell, or purgatory. What better justification could there be for putting a moratorium on Halloween than the fact that it has become disconnected from reason!

    The origins of Halloween as a day to dress in the common costume are also questionable. If “memory serves”, I believe that “All Hallows Eve” began as a pagan day that the Church turned into a reminder that sanctity is within everyone’s grasp by having a vigil for all of the unknown saints who are now in heaven. The members of the ecclesia are to help one another to grow in holiness and conversion of life. That is best done by simply attending the vigil Mass, by organizing a parish party for young people [who would dress as saints or religious], or by flatly avoiding what has become a secular perversion of this night that is now intended by mother Church to be a reminder of our common call to sanctity.

    St. John of the Cross says: “If you make use of your reason, you are like one who eats substantial food; but if you are moved by the satisfaction of your will, you are like one who eats insipid fruit.” And in another place: “God draws near to those who come together in an endeavor to know truth.” So, dresssing in a ghoulish costume in order to party with secular friends is unreasonable; whereas, coming together with fellow Catholics (in an effort to have fun while honoring sanctity) is to allow God to draw nearer to you (cf. Mt 18:20, and also St. John of the Cross above).

  9. FarmerBrawn says:

    Seems like a case of an organic tradition springing up. It certainly reclaims the pagan practices of modern society for the Cross.

  10. Maybe I’m distracted at the moment, but I’m not quite following what the correspondent refers to as “whitewashing” Hallowe’en and being “Protestant” about it. Many Protestants recoil in horror from Hallowe’en as pagan and demonic, and given what our culture has done to it, they have a point. Unfortunately, as a friend pointed out to me once, what our well meaning Protestant friends do is replace a celebration of sanctity with a “fall festival” — and that really is pagan.

    I urge parishioners to shy away from anything evil, for reasons I hope are obvious.

  11. Augustine Thompson O.P. says:

    Ah, yes, that piece on Halloween written 25 years ago (yikes!) for _Catholic Parent_. Pirated 100s of times on the web in many languages. So I get plenty of hostile mail this time of year from “traditional” Catholics accusing me of promoting Satanism. I would add in these contentious times that it is the parents’ choice as to whether their kids go out to trick-or-treat and what they wear.

    If they do go out, might I suggest St. Peter of Verona, also known as St. Peter Martyr? Now his traditional iconography makes a quite a costume:,+San+Pedro,+cloister+San+Pedro+de+Verona.jpg

  12. PostCatholic says:

    Consider the fright and discomfort caused to the Unitarian Universalist pastor who preaches a watered-down Gospel when his front porch is invaded by little John Paul II’s, little Mother Teresas, little Vincent Ferrers, little Thomas More and John Fisher, and a troop of the Martyrs of Otranto

    Unitarian Universalist and M.Div. here.

    Most UU churches are post-Christian and humanist in character; these days the use of biblical texts for readings during holy services is infrequent at best. That said, I have preached from the pulpit on the Gospels, most recently on the Wedding at Cana. Watering that down would take the joy out of the miracle. Perhaps Rev. Ferguson might someday have a Sunday morning free when he could come experience a UU service, or even avail himself of sermons posted online , and see for himself whether the preaching is uninstructed. I suspect we may surprise him.

    As for discovering little Mother Teresas and Thomas Mores or John Paul II’s, fright is not what I think would come to mind for my reaction; I am pretty sure that what I would feel is sorrow. From my outside perspective, wearing costumes of elderly churchmen and women seems like heavy-handed indoctrination that doesn’t allow children the fun of being children.

  13. asburyfox says:

    Traditionalists are correctly reacting the Halloween’s modern reversal back into its pagan roots, but err in their response. Halloween night being the night where the veil between the worlds is the thinnest so the pagans had their celebrations with Samhain in centuries past. The Church came along and Christianized the holiday with All Hallows’ Eve like they did all pagan holidays. Then modern American secular culture in the last decades have moved Halloween in an occult direction back to Paganism. You also got the Satanists with their human and animal sacrifice on what they consider to be their holiest day according to their calendar.

    So Traditionalists err not in rejecting modern Halloween, but like the Protestants, reject it and do nothing. Hide and lock yourself up. They let the Satanists, pagans, and secular culture win. The answer is to reclaim it again for the Church. Turn it back to a devotional night of Catholic customs.

  14. Mightnotbeachristiantou says:

    Some Catholic cultures might have had customs for All Hallows’ Eve, but I have not seen anything except the vampire ball. American Halloween is starting to take over the country. One can wait for the sales to get something inexpensive for Karnenval.

    For those with Catholic children or would like next year to plan a fest of some kind, I refer you to “Shower of Roses” that has the All Saints Guessing Games.

    Her children also have lovely saint costume that they wear at other times of the year. I think depending on you situation your actions will vary, but actions should be with love and instruction.

  15. Lepidus says:

    I was with Father’s response up until he mentioned the van doors opening. Ugh! I’m a firm believer in trick-or-treating in your own neighborhood. If you need a car, you don’t need to be there.

  16. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Thanks Fathers three, for such interesting and enjoyable matter! (And guans for the T-shirt: also, an inspiration to variation for those accordingly skilled – I think the panel dating from around 1500 attributed to Ludovico Brea in the Church of St. Martial in La Brigue, and usually described as the Assumption or Coronation of the Virgin, would make a fine, saint-filled T-shirt, too, for instance.)

    Perhaps Fr. Thompson (or someone else) could update with a note on the curious recent, umm, ‘cultural appropriation’ (?) of Guy Fawkes with standardized mask-style by Anonymous and for other (shall we say) revolutionary but not Fawkesianly Catholic causes.

    Fr. Thompson’s St. Peter of Verona statue and traditional iconography raise interesting matters of the depiction of the horrific and possible responses to it (I am reminded of St. Thomas’s Christmas sermon in Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral: “on earth the Church mourns and rejoices at once, in a fashion that the world cannot understand” – of which all sorts of Feast-related playfulness may also properly be a part -?).

    C. S. Lewis’s letter of 16 January 1954 to one of his English godchildren gives an interesting glimpse of early-20th-c. Northern Irish celebrations (in C of Ireland circles?): “I liked the account of your XII Night Party, a ceremony I knew nothing about. Where I grew up he great thing was Halloween (eve of All Saints’ Day). There was always a slightly eerie, spooky feeling mixed with games, events, and various kinds of fortune telling – not a good night on which to walk through a churchyard. (Tho’ in fact, Irish people, believing in both, are much more afraid of fairies than of ghosts).”

    bobk’s splendid bilocation costume idea somehow combined in my mind with PostCatholic’s characterization of “elderly churchmen and women” (I don’t know how old PostCatholic is, but I don’t find St. Thomas’s 57 years that elderly): a group of young folk costumed as the Seven (or however many) Ages of a given Saint – say, Pope St. John Paul II, including vigorous football player and mountaineer as well as forced laborer, and Cardinal Archbishop in his prime as well as patient octogenarian sufferer.

    Fr. Ferguson’s excellent Theban Legion might be multiply ‘provocative’ depending on the participants and one strand of traditional iconography (Black Martyrs Lives Matter!).

  17. “Heavy-handed indoctrination”..and that is exactly the type of comment that betrays a certain uninstructed opinion that would make me wonder at the preaching indeed. Oh but probably not for the right reasons.

    I can only think you would feel sad upon opening the door to children dressed as elderly churchmen and women because you have that fresh outside perspective that allows you to pity those stifled in the stale air of heavy-handed indoctrinartion.
    I understand the temptation to stay on the surface and easily dismiss the families who seem to be so afraid of the present state of the world that they are virtually sectioning themselves off into little catholic ghettos but that’s just it, it only seems that way. To be sure, there are some who fall into this way of coping so to speak but by all means this is not the norm.
    You are pitying those who do not need your pity but your support mainly by your prayers. I must give you credit you almost made the poor catholic, probably very tired home-schooling mothers and fathers sound awfully scary indeed! Imagine, answering the doorbell to that awfully dowdy and frazzled homeschooling mother,wooden spoon in hand, her whole brood in tow all dressed as little Pio’s, John-Paul’s amd various Carmelite wonders. There are, you know other things in this world to be sad about, children dressed as saints not being one of them.

    The families who take part in the All Saints eve parties are not as I described of course. Really, they are very normal folks trying to raise their families in a world that can barely tolerate them if not outright despises them.

  18. Lepidus, haha! You may come trick or treat in my neighborhood. Only I can’t promise you won’t change your mind.
    We are, God willing, going to the All Saints eve party this year. Not because I have anything against trick or trating but I would never pass up the oppotunity if I can help it to be with such wonderful people.

  19. PostCatholic says:

    True enough, few things are more terrifying than those wing-nut homeschooling parents who beat their children with implements.

  20. un-ionized says:

    I know dozens of homeschooled kids, not one of whom is beaten.

  21. PostCatholic says:

    As do I, un-ionized. If you read back, you’ll see I was responding to a scenario ChiaraDiAssisi proffered which included a mother holding a wooden spoon.

  22. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    The strange world of iconography update: I just saw a photo of a black Donald Trump supporter wearing a black Guy Fawkes mask on the back of his head!

  23. gracie says:

    Some parents dress up in costumes along with their kids when they go trick-or-treating.

  24. michele421 says:

    I promised I wouldn’t comment here again because I’m liberal and come across as a troll, but I’d like to break that promise to share something positive.

    When I was in college in the ’70’s, many of the students would wear costumes and go bar-hopping on Halloween. My group of friends didn’t bar-hop but we did go out in costume to see the sights. Fr. Bob Smith, the beloved priest of the campus parish, would go out with us dressed in a black cassock and biretta. A priest in cassock and biretta was an extremely rare sight in that time, and he attracted a lot of attention. This was his very effective way of reaching out to kids who might otherwise never come near the church. He would give counsel, talk, hear confessions, whatever was needed. I know he brought a number of young people back to the Church, and I’m sure a lot of souls were saved who would otherwise have been lost.

    I believe that very often if we cooperate with the Holy Spirit we can bring a lot of good out of a potentially very bad situation.

  25. Filipino Catholic says:

    That belief about the night of All Hallows’ Eve being the night when the veil between worlds is thinnest might make for a good setting for a short story. Many are of the impression that this means the darkness has free rein, right? It being the Vigil of All Saints, the Church Triumphant has other ideas, and a fairly messy fracas ensues unseen by mortal eyes, with iconographic symbols and instruments of martyrdom being wielded as convenient weapons. “This night is the light’s, and the darkness cannot compass it.”

  26. Volanges says:

    In our town the Salvation Army organizes “Trunk and Treat”. It’s a way to keep kids off the street as much as possible. If you wish to participate you register with the S.A. in advance, decorate your car and park at the church (in costume if you wish). Kids come to the different cars for their treats then everyone is invited inside to warm up with hot chocolate (there snow on the ground here). I’m not organized enough to do that so I just stay home with my goodies (which I’ve chosen based on my personal taste) and hand out treats to the handful of children who show up. I’m always happy with leftovers. :D

    I found the article by Fr. Thompson interesting and would like to say that in my neck of the Canadian woods Guy Fawkes is remembered every November 5th which is commonly celebrated throughout the province as “Bonfire Night”. Here’s the ad from out town’s website:

    Guy Fawkes Night: Public Skate & Bonfire
    Information for the public
    October 28, 2016
    In recognition of the Annual Guy Fawkes Night, the Town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay will be holding the following activities at the E.J. Broomfield Memorial Arena on Saturday, November 5th:
    Free Skating: 6:00 – 6:50 p.m.
    Bonfire: 7:00 p.m., behind the arena
    Free apples, hot dogs, marshmallows and hot chocolate will be provided at the bonfire.
    Community members attending the event are asked to use the main parking area in front of the arena, not along the back of the building.
    This event is free and open to the public.

  27. Joe in Canada says:

    I disagree that it was a trilogy represented by these days. Hallowe’en was a cultural celebration that had nothing to do with Christianity, and it was absorbed, but not strongly enough to resist the onslaught of the modern combination of consumerism and rootlessness. It can be safely ignored. A real “Hallowe’en” would be First Vespers for All Saints. And a reading, perhaps, of St Alphonsus Rodriguez (Oct 31) by Hopkins.

  28. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    michele421’s comment somehow suddenly reminds me that there are – or have been – laws in some countries of the Continent of Europe making it illegal for people to appear in public dressed as clergy or monastics who are not so in fact (I think, in practice, to some fair extent with an eye to Carnival) – does anyone happen to have an idea of the state of such legislation?

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  30. WVC says:

    I’ll reiterate my comment that there is a lot of middle ground between satanic and saintly. It does feel like an irrational, saccharine reaction to say, “even though I enjoyed Halloween as a kid and had fun people who don’t dress their kids up as saints are giving in to the devil.” A few points:

    1) – Doesn’t “saint” dressing somewhat short circuit the point of All Saints day. The famous saints have their own feast day. They’re already celebrated. Isn’t “All Saints” day the time to celebrate the many thousands of saints that are not remembered or even known as they haven’t been formally canonized? By having kids pick already known and famous saints to dress up as, doesn’t this actually go against the purpose behind the actual celebration?

    2) – Is there not a valid memento mori aspect to traditional Halloween celebrations? The fact is that we humans are always fascinated by the darker aspects of this world. Death, demons, and the like are something that we all have some strange attraction to (and before anyone has a problem with ghastly images of death and demons, I could point to a host of pre-modern artwork patronized by the Church featuring gargoyles, demons, devils, and skeletons galore). Allowing children to explore this and interact with it in a safe, controlled environment (the home with a loving family and friends) is a much better way to have a child begin to deal with this part of human nature vice letting them suddenly encounter it for the first time when they’re off on their own. It’s the same argument I have against folks who never show their children any movies or television – it’s a part of the world we live in. The children will eventually encounter it. You either prepared them for it or not. There is middle ground between opening the floodgates and cutting off all contact.

    3) – Halloween is fun, and it is secular. Just as the natural instinct is to get irritated when folks mix the secular into the sacred (no guitars or applause at Mass, thank you very much), the same holds true for many when you go the other direction. When you try to “pious-on-up” a secular celebration, it starts feeling like you put broccoli on the chocolate cake. Having fun for fun’s sake is an important thing. Carving a pumpkin into a scary face is fun. Setting it on fire is even more fun (candles are for wimps – if you don’t have a 3 foot flame coming out of the top of your pumpkin, you’re not doing it right). Making kids carve crosses and saints’ symbols into a pumpkin – it’s not so much fun. Not being able to set those on fire – definitely not fun.

    Finally – if you get into the habit of giving things up that other folks start ruining, you will have nothing left. So what if large parts of heathen America celebrate Halloween horribly? They also celebrate Christmas horribly (a secular frenzy of materialism if there ever was on). They celebrate St. Valentine’s Day horribly. They celebrate St. Patrick’s Day horribly. And they celebrate Thanksgiving without ever giving thanks to God. So what? If we stop celebrating those days, we lose. If we change how we celebrate those days by turning our backs on our own traditions (“Kids, to be more holy we’re going to eat Lentils for out Thanksgiving Meal as an act of reparation for the many sins committed by our country”), we also lose. If we keep what we had and pass it on to our children – we all win.

    I say this as one who has in past years dressed up as a saint myself. My best costume was St. Ignatius of Antioch – I dressed as a roman, carried around 7 letters conspicuously addressed, and had by 1.5 year old as my costume accessory – she was dressed up as a lion. I’m not against dressing up as saints, and when we’re invited to parties where that’s the custom we accommodate, but as for me and my house – we enjoy being a little silly and spooky.

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