Catholic Revision of Halloween? (A Reasoned Response)

Derek Ouellette —  October 28, 2013 — Leave a comment

photoI think Catholic/Protestant controversies are overrated. So I go out of my way to build bridges between Catholics and Protestants and this often involves calling Protestants out when they attempt to colour history in a way that makes us out to be the heroes of the story. I do this because I’m a Protestant. If I spent all my time rebutting Catholics, it would do my bridge-building cause harm because I’d be seen as just another Protestant apologist seeking to attack the enemy. So I leave “Catholic revisionists and apologists” to their own, hoping that reasonable and educated Catholics will take their own to task.

But on occasion I feel the need to offer a reasoned response to the rhetoric of Catholic apologists, hoping that I can offer sound reason to ground their readers in reality. I’m suspicious of apologists because their agenda colours their interpretation and presentation of the facts – whether Protestant or Catholic.

Such seems to be the case in a Catholic apologetic website which was shared to me in response to my video episode titled “Christians & Halloween: An Origin Story.”

THE CLAIM

The article begins by asserting that the idea of Halloween having pagan origins is a “myth… based on bad research and propaganda that developed after the Protestant Reformation.” That line is written in response to a quote from Christian Broadcasting Network (a Protestant television network) which makes the erroneous claim that “Even a cursory look at the origins of Halloween will reveal satanic rituals played out in trick and treating, jack-o-lanterns, witches, ghosts, the dead, and on and on.” The article goes on to correctly remind us that from very early on Christians began holding feasts in memory of the saints who had died. Then the article jumps to Gregory III who, in the 8th century, “consecrated a chapel in the Basilica of St. Peter to all the saints and fixed the anniversary for 1 November” and that “Sixty years later, Pope Gregory IV commanded that All Saints be observed everywhere annually on the first day of November.” The day before November 1 was October 31, which is a vigil held before the feast – a customary practice to this day. It makes the point that “Halloween falls on October 31 because it is the vigil before All Saints Day, and not because the Church wanted to “baptize Samhain or any other pagan celebration.” He goes on to debunk the idea that Samhain involved jack-o-lanterns, witches, ghosts and religious ceremonies by citing that there is “no evidence that 1 November was a major pan-Celtic festival, and none of religious ceremonies, even where it was observed.” That quote is followed by a dismissive qualification involve “folktales.” He concludes his apologetic part of the article by stating that “Virtually all of the customs associated with the modern secular celebration of Halloween developed only in the past 500 years and have very few (if any) connections to ancient pagan religious practices.”

I’ve attempted to fairly and accurately summarize his case. But if you wish, click here for the link to the article itself.

REASONED RESPONSE

What is your agenda?

From the start the author states that he’s writing against the Protestant propaganda which is used to perpetuate the myth of Halloween’s pagan origins in order to use that point against Catholicism. First of all, have I ever told you how deeply I despise conspiracy theories? The authors assertion can hardly be historically validated. For evidence to his claim he points to a quote from CBN? That’s like pointing to Roswell and then claiming all American’s believe aliens have visited earth, or pointing to the Ku Klux Klan and then claiming that all white people are racist, or pointing to Ray Comfort and saying all Christians believe in a young earth. CBN are the same fringe form of Protestantism that said Rock and Roll is from the Devil back in the ’80’s.

You get the point? And this is my beef with apologists. To make a point they too often set up red herrings. Their arguments are often based on the most fringe form of a diverse group. I have been a Protestant for more than twenty years and never have I head Halloween’s origins used as a case against Catholics.

But given his agenda we should read the rest of his article with a critical eye. Is he going to present history for history’s sake, or is he trying to present history in a way that rebuts his stick man?

What is your claim?

The author’s aim, broadly speaking, is to show how Halloween is not rooted in Pagan origins. But specifically, he aims to rebut the idea that “satanic rituals played out in trick and treating, jack-o-lanterns, witches, ghosts, the dead.” The fringe notwithstanding, historians don’t claim that jack-o-lanterns, trick or treating, or witches were a part of the Samhain festival. The only claim that historians make regarding Samhain involving these things is that it was believed the dead and evil spirits could more easily enter our world at that time.

So I’d like to see where his source is getting his source from. My suspicion is that, like the author of the post himself, the “source” is making an assertion. The fact that the Samhain festival included an element involving evil spirits and the dead is well attested by academic sources (Examples: Monaghan, Patricia. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. Infobase Publishing, 2004. p.41, 407; O’Halpin, Andy. Ireland: An Oxford Archaeological Guide. Oxford University Press, 2006. p.236; Santino, Jack. The Hallowed Eve: Dimensions of Culture in a Calendar Festival of Northern Ireland. University Press of Kentucky, p.105; Danaher, Kevin (1972). The Year in Ireland: Irish Calendar Customs. p.200; “Halloween”. Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2009. Credo Reference. Web. 21 September 2012). This means that the onus of proof falls on the revisionists who would claim otherwise.

What is the big problem?

The article is clearly agenda driven; basically the Catholic version of Protestant fundamentalism (which is another marked problem with apologists). I would suspect that reasonable and knowledgable Catholics would critically read and respond to their own just as reasonable and knowledgable Protestants do. The fact that the author sets his argument up against a fringe fundamentalist form of Protestantism makes me fearful of how Catholics see us. Do they think that fundamentalists represent Protestantism? That right there might be a part of our problem, and why Catholics and Protestants talk past each other. I won’t make that mistake. I won’t assume that an apologist on a Catholic apologetic website represents Catholic intellectualism. I think that the Catholic Church is far more reasoned and intellectually nuanced than that.

The author accuses Protestants of offering “bad research” while the research reflected in the article is something I’d expect from a high school student, not a professional. Not only is it unapologetically bias, but that fact turns his “bad research” remark back on himself. While he criticizes the “claim that it was an attempt by early Christians to “baptize” the Gaelic harvest festival of Samhain” he misses the point that the article he cites in The Original Catholic Encyclopedia in his defence says that “Boniface IV, May 13, 609, or 610, consecrated the Pantheon in Rome to the Blessed Virgin and all the martyrs, ordering an anniversary.” Sound to me like Christians “baptized” the pagan Pantheon. So why is it such a stretch to think that they also baptized the harvest festival of Samhain? And while we are on the topic of bad research, he also failed to point out the crucial point that “All Saints Day” did not begin in the eighth century, but back in the seventh century, on the day when Boniface IV consecrated the Roman Pantheon to Mary and the Saints (though unofficially feasts for the saints had been celebrated since nearly the beginning of the Church). That day was also the Roman festival of Lemuria – which had similar themes as Samhain involve evil spirits and the dead. You’d think that an origin story of Halloween would do enough research to actually get to its origin. And since we’re still on the subject of bad research, what Gregory III and Pope Gregory IV did was move All Saints Day to November 1, making it a fixed date, they didn’t invent it or “originate” it in the eighth century. And while we are still on the topic of bad research, Samhain was not celebrated just on October 31 only, but it was celebrated on October 31 and/or November 1 (it was somewhat flexible and appears often to be celebrated on both days).

Conclusion

Personally, I don’t like it when Protestants and Catholics go after each others jugular in a corporate fashion (I’m not going after Catholics in this article, I’m going after Jon who’s article is set to widen that gap between Catholics and Protestants). I think it defeats the purpose of the Kingdom of God. I’d much rather see us work together. What Jon’s article intended to do was not necessary. The Church has a long history of “baptizing” pagan days and turning them into something which points to God (i.e. Christmas) and, personally, I think that’s great! I think that God is not just in the business of redeeming people, but culture and also creation. To paraphrase Joseph, what the world means for evil, God can turn to good (Gen. 50:20).

For the record, I have no beef in this fight. Really! If Halloween does not have pagan origins, great! If it does, then I made my thoughts known about it. Now here’s my video suggesting that Christians can celebrate Halloween in spite of its pagan origins. Enjoy!

Derek Ouellette

Posts Twitter Facebook Google+

a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.