Trick or treat? That is the question every Oct. 31, in more ways than one.

Glowing jack-o’-lanterns, candy corn by the bowlful and apples for the bobbing — all of that is one thing. But macabre decorations, ghastly costumes and occult intimations all around the neighborhood — what’s a Catholic parent to do with that stuff?

“First of all, go back to the Christian origin of the feast,” says Father Kevin Barrett, chaplain of the Apostolate for Family Consecration and Catholic Familyland in Bloomingdale, Ohio. “If the world has abducted another feast and made this one an occasion for witchery and paganism, families must say: ‘This is a Catholic feast. Let’s celebrate it as such.’”

Oct. 31 “is a hallowed evening because it’s the evening before All Saints’ Day on Nov. 1,” adds the priest. “And you have the great feast of All Souls following” on Nov. 2.

Father Barrett and others have some ideas on ways families can re-Christianize this vigil day and, at the same time, celebrate the two major feast days it ushers in.

He points out that Halloween, or Hallowe’en, is short for All Hallows’ Eve. This is the vigil for All Hallows, or Hallowmas — also known as All Saints’ Day.

Looking back in history, many Catholics were already celebrating All Saints on Nov. 1 when a papal decree in 840 extended the feast to the entire Church. While early Christians and Benedictine monasteries remembered the faithful departed, around the 10th century the whole Church began commemorating the holy souls in purgatory on Nov. 2.

Instead of letting Satan steal a Christian feast like Halloween and make it into a pagan dance of death, Father Barrett says, “Let’s be joyous and remember that we have brothers and sisters who have left us examples and are praying for us.”

A popular way for families to remember the saints is to let the kids pick out their favorite one to dress up as. This can be a good teaching moment, says Father Barrett, since the youngsters need to find out a little about their saints before they can imitate them for the evening.

“How much more beautiful it is for families to say, ‘We’re going to have our own party,’” adds Father Barrett, or to combine forces with other like-minded Catholic families for an even bigger saintly bash. “After all, what is heaven if not a big celebration?”

Instructive Attire

In Indianapolis, Michael and Maria O’Rourke know how fun and powerful this approach can be. The O’Rourkes and their seven children, ages 14 to 2, have made a custom of getting together with other families for Halloween parties.

“They have to know a little about their saints because people are very curious,” Michael finds. The children aren’t just portraying saints — they’re developing expertise on the holy heroes.

The O’Rourke kids turn their research into a guessing game. Rather than simply telling people who they are that night, they give hints on “my” year of birth, country of origin, major works and so on.

Little ones can join in the fun too. O’Rourke recalls the giggles 5-year-old Daniel got when someone asked who he was. “I’m a priest,” said the lad. “From where?” came the follow-up question. Daniel replied: “From Mass!”

The event “becomes a source of evangelization,” explains O’Rourke. “What’s nice about it is the children look forward to the time of year like other kids do,” but their memories will be spiritually formative, not ghoulishly indulgent.       

Jay and Elana Stanley of Danville, Ind., with their three children ages 9 to 14, host a Halloween All Saints’ party. The fest includes a hotdog roast and a hayride in the wagon behind Jay’s lawn tractor. Everyone gathers around a bonfire to join in a community Rosary.

“We highly encourage our teenagers to dress up too,” says Elana. “They set an example for the younger children. This is a good way of standing up for the faith.”

Kids for Jesus at Catholic Kids Net ( have several suggestions for celebrating Halloween the faith-filled way. They emphasize the fruits of explaining the distinctions between the Church Triumphant (the saints in heaven), the Church Suffering (the holy souls in purgatory) and the Church Militant (that would be us here on Earth).

According to K4J national director Kathleen Conklin, one simple variation on the saints-and-angels costumes is the parade of the saints’ hats. Older kids help younger ones decorate a party hat with cut-out symbols and sayings of a particular saint. Then the kids parade around the yard or school.

And then there’s the social justice component. Melissa Salisbury of Catholic Kids Net suggests having kids collect canned goods for the parish food shelf.

Using the special day to do something for the less fortunate “provides a simple apostolic activity that helps kids give while they are receiving their own Halloween goodies,” Salisbury points out. “They could wear their saint costumes” — maybe select Mother Cabrini, Mother Teresa, Father Damien of Molokai or Vincent de Paul — “to make it extra fun and help kids see what it feels like to be real-life missionaries to the poor.”

Darkness Defied

As for decorations: Alongside or in place of carved pumpkins, families can make “saintly lanterns” together, suggests Salisbury. “These are easy and elegant,” she says, “and can be used to symbolize Jesus’ teaching that saints don’t hide their lights under baskets.”

They’re made by punching nail-hole designs of Christian symbols into tin cans. (You may want to freeze water inside the can to stabilize it for the nail-punching.) Lit candles inside the cans turn them into nifty centerpieces or, for a larger party to which every child brings at least one can lantern, walkway liners lighting a path to the doorway.

What to say about the neighborhood kids who show up for their handout in gory regalia? After the night is over, before bedtime, use the experience as another teaching moment.

Salisbury points out that kids know well that there’s real darkness in the world, and that not everyone chooses the light.

“Sometimes we don’t consci­ously acknowledge this, but getting to heaven, or purgatory, means that another option, the dark side, exists — it is very much a reality,” she says. “Kids inform themselves of this particularly at Halloween time. What’s important is to help them make clear distinctions. You can make clear that evil isn’t just pretend and neither is heaven.”

There’s another important point we need to teach children and remind ourselves of, says Father Barrett.

“All Saints’ Day is really not only the celebration of all the canonized saints,” he explains, “but also of saints with a small s.” St. Paul reminds us we’re all called to be saints and should strive for sanctity (holiness here) as well as salvation (heaven later).

Pray for the Dead

Which brings us to All Souls’ Day: Those in purgatory are already fully assured of joining the ranks of the saints in heaven at God’s appointed time for them.

Father Barrett reminds us that St. Thomas Aquinas taught there’s no greater charity to be practiced than to help the souls who can’t help themselves in purgatory. We can help them by our prayers and sacrifices on their behalf.

This becomes a wonderful way for families to remember all their beloved deceased and keep alive their memory.

On All Souls’ Day, the Stanleys visit the cemetery to pray by gravestones for particular people, especially relatives.

“Let’s pray for our family members because we’re not sure where they are,” Elana tells the children. “They may need our assistance.”

The family then continues praying for them, plus strangers, year-round.

“At night, when the kids can’t sleep, I tell them there’s somebody in need of your prayers,” she says. “They can be helping poor souls in purgatory or in distress.”

In each of these ways this Halloween, Catholic families can trick the culture of death and treat the culture of life.

Staff writer Joseph Pronechen

writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.