An Instructive Example of How Myths Get Started
Whenever I discuss the Catholic roots of Halloween and explain how an odd coalition of anti-Catholic fundamentalists and modern-day “pagans,” “Wiccans,” and self-proclaimed “satanists” have convinced some Catholics that Halloween is anti-Christian, I know what to expect: Someone will send me an email declaring that no less an authority than Pope Benedict XVI himself has condemned Halloween as “dangerous” and “anti-Christian.” In light of the Pope Emeritus’s clear opposition to the holiday, my correspondents ask, how can I possibly make the claim that Halloween is nothing more than the vigil of All Saints Day, much less tell Catholic parents that it is OK to let their children dress up in scary costumes and go out trick-or-treating?
If what my many correspondents over the years have said were true, it would not change the fact that Halloween does not descend from dark druidic customs but from practices developed by Catholic Irish peasants centuries after Celtic paganism had become nothing more than a bad memory.
But it might give Catholic parents a legitimate reason to rethink letting their children celebrate Halloween.
But the truth is that Pope Benedict never declared Halloween “dangerous” or “anti-Christian.”
The Origins of a Myth
So why do so many Catholics think that Pope Benedict condemned Halloween? The answer can be found in a combination of tabloid journalism, the power of the internet, and the tyranny of first impressions.
On October 30, 2009, the Daily Mail, a popular tabloid newspaper out of the United Kingdom, ran an article with the provocative headline “Halloween is ‘dangerous’ says the Pope as he slams ‘anti-Christian’ festival.” The online version of the article features a prominent picture of Benedict, papers in hand, over the caption “Pope Benedict XVI, pictured in the Vatican, has slammed Halloween as ‘dangerous.’“
The impression that one gets upon first viewing the article is that Pope Benedict held a press conference at the Vatican to declare, once and for all, that Catholics should renounce Halloween. Unfortunately, many who load up the webpage never get past that first impression, because they never actually read the text of the article.
So What Did Pope Benedict Actually Say About Halloween?
In a word, nothing. As the text of the Daily Mail article makes clear, the U.K. paper was engaging in one of the sordid traditions of British tabloid journalism: the bait-and-switch. The Daily Mail quotes from an article published on October 29, 2009, in L’Osservatore Romano, the official newspaper of Vatican City—though not, as the Daily Mail and so many others often claim, “the Vatican’s official newspaper,” in the sense of being an authoritative source of Church teaching. In that article, “The Dangerous Messages of Halloween,” “liturgical expert Joan Maria Canals” declares, “Halloween has an undercurrent of occultism and is absolutely anti-Christian.”
So there you have the two words, “dangerous” and “anti-Christian.” One comes from the headline of the L’Osservatore Romano article; the other comes from a “liturgical expert.” Neither comes from Pope Benedict.
Both the L’Osservatore Romano article and the Daily Mail bait-and-switch piece do note the rise of opposition in recent years among some Catholics in Europe, especially in Italy and Spain, to Halloween. But outside of the Daily Mail’s completely false headline, neither newspaper claims that Pope Benedict said anything about Halloween, much less condemned it. And I can find no record anywhere else that the Pope Emeritus ever publicly addressed this holiday.
Don’t Believe Everything You Read
That’s not surprising, because Pope Benedict likely never celebrated Halloween or is even all that familiar with it, since the Irish Catholic peasant celebration never really took hold among Germans, except among those who immigrated to the United States.
It is instructive to note, however, that the Pope Emeritus is quite familiar with the Krampus, the demonic figure attached to Saint Nicholas in the folklore of Bavarians and Austrians, who makes the vampires, werewolves, witches, and ghouls of Halloween look positively tame in comparison. And rather than condemn the Germanic tradition of Krampusnacht (December 6), when both Saint Nicholas and the Krampus go house to house to reward the children who have been good and to terrorize those who have been naughty, Pope Benedict has spoken fondly of his memories of Krampusnacht from his childhood days.
Rather than being damaged by his fear of this immense furry demon with red eyes and huge claws, Pope Benedict called the fear of the Krampus “the strongest motivation” for his five-year-old self to be better in the coming year.
What, then, would the Pope Emeritus really think of Halloween? I don’t know. But neither does anyone else—especially if all they have read is a bait-and-switch headline designed to sell copies of a tabloid newspaper.
First published on About Catholicism in October 2013.