When I was a good Catholic boy growing up in Spokane, Wash., I'd hear the same sermon every October.
My parish priest, Msgr. John Donnelly, would talk about the history of Halloween. His version of history (at least as I recall from my boyhood understanding of the catechism) stated that Halloween was based on a Celtic i.e., pagan holiday that mocked the Catholic holy day of obligation, All Saints Day (also known as All Hallows Day). The references to ghosts, skeletons and the like were a dig against the Catholic worship of the departed saints.
The none-too-subtle message of Father Donnelly's sermon was that good Catholics shouldn't celebrate Halloween not just because it was glorifying the supernatural, but specifically because it made fun of Catholics.
My mom was torn. She was a good Catholic, but she also didn't want her children ostracized for not taking part in Halloween events at school. So she split the difference: We got to have Halloween costumes (I remember once wearing a skeleton get-up she made from a Butterick pattern) and go to Halloween parties. But we couldn't go trick-or-treating, which my mom considered a form of extortion. Mom would buy candy to hand out to other trick-or-treaters, and we got to keep the leftovers.
Many families don't get that riled up about the theological implications of Halloween, which has become perhaps our most secular holiday.
The one time where Halloween and religion do collide is when the day falls on a Sunday.
It happened in 1999, in 2004, and it happens again this year.
It's always been a conundrum for parents in Utah, where the majority of the population are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Keeping the Christian Sabbath is a major tenet of the LDS faith, of course, and many observant Mormons try to avoid going to the store, let alone walking their kids door-to-door begging for fun-sized Snickers bars.
Most of the haunted houses and corn mazes in the Salt Lake City area will close up shop after Saturday, Oct. 30. (The exceptions are Castle of Chaos in South Salt Lake City and Black Island Farms in Syracuse.) Even the amusement park Lagoon, which is open most Sundays, isn't running its "Frightmares" past the 30th, which is the last day of the park's season.
Utah isn't the only place where Sunday Halloween observance is an issue. Several towns in the deep South (a Google search found cases in Alabama, Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina) have had officials urging parents to send the kids out on Saturday instead of Sunday. Some cite church activities and tradition, others mention the fact that Sunday is a school night though that doesn't seem to be a problem when Halloween falls on a Tuesday.
In the predominantly LDS town of Raymond, Alberta, the town council voted to move Halloween to the 30th. "It's primarily because we have a large faith-based community where people prefer to keep their Sundays more private, to stay home and have family time," Mayor George Bohne told the Calgary Sun.
This vexation seems a bit strange, theologically. If one's religion keeps a person from marking Halloween on a Sunday, wouldn't that same religion prevent that person from celebrating the holiday dedicated to the supernatural at all?
Ultimately, government entities can't really regulate private observance of a non-government holiday. When to celebrate Halloween is a personal and a neighborhood choice.
If your neighbors are likely to shun you if your kids ring doorbells on a Sunday, you'll probably send the little ones out on Saturday. On the other hand, you might keep a bowl of Tootsie Rolls by the door on Sunday, because you don't want to punish the kids for their parents' decisions.
Of course, the smart kids will figure out which houses to hit on Saturday, and which ones to visit Sunday thus doubling their haul.
The good news for parents caught in this bind between Halloween and church? After this year, thanks to a quirk in the calendar, Halloween won't fall on a Sunday until 2021.
Sean P. Means writes the Culture Vulture in daily blog form, at blogs.sltrib.com/vulture