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Halloween is a Catholic celebration Print
Guest column
Fr. Steve Grunow

In the spirit of the upcoming All Hallows Eve, a.k.a. Halloween, Word of Fire staffers fired some questions at the walking encyclopedia that is Fr. Steve Grunow. He responded with everything you ever wanted to know about Halloween and its deeply Catholic roots.

This article is the first in a three-part series.


Question: I always figured that Halloween had pagan roots, but you are telling me they are Catholic. Huh? How so?

Fr. Steve Grunow: The origin and traditional customs associated with Halloween require no other explanation than that they are examples of the kinds of festivity that served as a means of celebrating the various holy days of the Catholic Liturgical Year.

This includes everything from masquerades, feasting, and the associations of a given day of the year with supernatural or spiritual truths.

Halloween's Catholic history

The descent of Halloween into the madness of an annual fright fest is a relatively recent development, but the true substance of Halloween belongs to the Church. Halloween (or "All Hallows Eve") is the festive precursor to the celebration of the Church's public commemoration of All Saints Day.

There has been an appropriation of the festivities of Halloween by modern pagans, but please understand that modern paganism is precisely modern and should be distinguished from the cults of ancient religions. The origins of the modern paganism do not extend farther back than the late 19th century.

Defining paganism

Remember, the term "pagan" is a slippery one. What does it mean? The worship of the gods and goddesses from long ago? Those cults have long since passed away with the cultural matrix that once supported their world views.

The paganism that exists today is a romantic and very selective attempt at a re-appropriation of an ancient religious ethos, but it isn't and cannot be the same thing that paganism was in its original cultural expressions.

I think that the association of Halloween with paganism has much more to do with the Protestant Reformation than anything else. The Protestant reformers were concerned about the practices of medieval Christianity that to them seemed contrary to what they believed the Church should be.

I realize popular religiosity is a complex phenomenon, and the Church in Europe did intentionally assimilate many cultural practices that were more ancient than its own practices, but it did so selectively and with a keen sense of discernment.

The end result was not simply that a veneer of Christianity was placed on top of an ancient pagan ethos, but that a new cultural matrix was created, one that was Christian to its core. It is a gross mischaracterization to assert that you can just scratch the surface of medieval Christianity and what rises up is paganism.

Distinctions of Protestantism

Protestantism was and is proposing what its adherents believe to be an alternative to Catholicism. This means that Protestantism will distinguish itself from the forms and styles of religious life and that this culture will be presented as a purified form of Christian faith and practice.

One argument that is advanced to justify Protestant distinctiveness is that the beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church are pagan.

Placing all this in an American cultural context, the United States set its cultural roots in forms of Protestantism that were keenly aware of the distinction between themselves and a Catholic Europe that they had rejected and whose influence they had hoped to leave behind.

Remember, the Puritans left Protestant England for the New World because England wasn't Protestant enough! The Puritans detested the residual forms of Catholicism that they believed remained in the state church of England.

The arrival of Catholic immigrants to the shores of Protestant America was a source of great cultural consternation. The public festivals of the Catholic faith were characterized as corrupting and dangerous forms of paganism.

Halloween with all its carousing and shenanigans was especially problematic, as it represented the incursion of a specifically Catholic cultural form into a public life that was supposed to be Protestant.

Everything associated with these Catholic festivities was caricatured as pagan and the association stuck. Even Catholics began internalizing the critique that their own customs were holdovers from paganism.

As a result, the distinctly Catholic nature of Halloween became more and more muted, and it was Catholics pulling back from their own festival that gave rise to the contemporary version of Halloween.

The goulish version of the festival that we have today is in many respects a result of Catholic accommodation to a Protestant culture. In a another strange twist, most everything that the devout Protestant detests about Halloween have become all the more pronounced as a result of their protests.

Fr. Steve Grunow is the CEO of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. Learn more at