My local paper here in Pittsburgh ran a story yesterday about all of the various “alternative” events and celebrations that people have come up with re: Halloween. Now, the reaction to the secular version of Halloween is perfectly understandable – you have, on the one hand, the plethora of ghouls and monsters which is aided and abetted by the entertainment media... and, not to forget, Pittsburgh has acquired an identity, of sorts, as “zombie town”, thanks at least in part to the work of George Romero (of “Night of the Living Dead” and countless sequels). And on the other hand, there is the golden opportunity for the innocent young to gorge themselves on sugar-laden candy, which makes Halloween a dentist's nightmare (or dream, depending on one's point of view). It is, in fact, a reversion of sorts to the pre-Christian era of pantheism and dark superstition, especially of the sort practiced in the British Isles (and, I might add, undergoing a revival, with neo-Druids prancing around Stonehenge and other mysterious sites). And the “nothing but” school is always ready to point out that many Christian holidays have a historical basis in pagan observances – the counter-argument to which is that the Church, quite wisely in my opinion, took advantage of pre-existing cultural habits to form a baseline for conversion or evolution into Christian thought and belief. Rather than trying to wipe the slate clean, and bring down all of the “groves and high places”, they converted them into a Christian context, making personal conversion perhaps less painful and traumatic than it might have been otherwise. Thus, the winter solstice became Christmas and spring revels and fertility rites became Easter, and so forth. And Halloween, more properly called All Hallows Eve, was turned from an autumn flirtation with death, and the dead, into the prelude for honoring the saints and the souls of those who had passed from this life into the next – hopefully through Purgatory into Heaven, rather than into the darkness and oblivion of Hell.
The problem is that with the re-paganization of so much of the West many people came to take Halloween seriously as a holiday in its own right, ignoring the fact that it is intended to announce a time of observance and prayer for the departed. And this, I believe, is what is behind much of the ever-increasing reaction and search for “alternatives”. It's no longer a harmless child's game of “trick or treat” when there are real, live pagans, witches (alleged), and demon-worshipers running about the landscape. Even the U.S. Army Chaplain's Handbook includes references to “other” groups, including the Church of Satan, Temple of Set, and Wicca. So this has become serious business – an outgrowth, one might add, of our obsession with “diversity”. The position seems to be, more and more, that all altars are created equal, and that all personal beliefs and belief systems must be accorded at least a minimum of respect and accommodation. It's almost as if a tribe of “true believers” has taken over Halloween and declared that even the most superficial attention to that day puts one on the path to many and varied “blood-soaked altars”. And many adherents to more conventional religions agree!
More specifically, I note that virtually all of the “reacting” groups are Protestant. The article in question discusses activities at Presbyterian, Evangelical, and Methodist churches (along with various local communities with, I'm assuming, a similar mindset) -- and those are, I'm sure, just a few among many. But from the Catholic point of view, there is not a thing wrong with All Hallows Eve, precisely because it announces what follows: All Saints Day (a holy day of obligation) and All Souls Day. So what is the problem? And why do the Protestants seem to have a problem that the Catholics don't? Well, it's simply that the Protestants (and it depends on the specific denomination) generally don't think too much of the saints – i.e. of the process and validity of canonization. And likewise, they don't think too much of Purgatory. So All Saints Day leaves them a bit cold – or makes them uneasy – and likewise All Souls Day. Why celebrate something they aren't at all sure of? And especially, why celebrate days that “those Catholics” came up with, when everyone knows that the Bible contains everything you need, and does it mention saints, or Purgatory? Any good Protestant minister or scholar can tell you that these are accretions – things dreamed up to confuse the faithful and add to the power and influence of the Catholic Church... and certainly we can't have that! It's better to just be simple... but then there are all these Wicca types, and since they have adopted Halloween as their very own holiday, we have to distance ourselves as far as possible from all that. So by denying the reality of the saints, and of the Church Suffering, they pretty much render All Hallows Eve neutral, and thus leave it to the pagans to make of it what they will.
The Catholic Church, of course, has a ready answer to the secular Halloween, which is to turn it into an anticipatory celebration of the saints (both canonized and unknown) and a time of prayer for the as-yet-to-be saints. We don't have to scramble and seek “alternatives” because we know what the day is really all about, no matter what the pagans say or think, or what the Protestants try to ignore. And the Catholics don't have to ignore, or try to “reclaim” Halloween, because they never lost it in the first place – or its true meaning.