All Saints' Day Costume Backlash: only neat and tidy saints need apply?

by | Oct 20, 2016 | Catholic Living, Costumes, Halloween, Saints, Things I Think | 27 comments

Hey guys. 👋 I’m still not back. The book is coming along, but there’s still a ways to go. But. I got this mailbag question via email and answered it via email, and wanted to share it here, just in case any of you are facing the same criticisms. I really hope you’re not. I suppose this is one of those issues upon which good Catholics may disagree, but I am very strongly in support of my position. (So surprising, I know.)

Also, I’m not going to do the big All Saints’ Day costume contest this year <ducks under desk> but Hallowtide has always been a big part of this blog, so I can’t let the whole thing go by without a single post!

The Question:

Hi Kendra,

Hoping you can give me a little guidance as I don’t have as much experience with this as you do.

We are attending an All Saints party with our kids this year. I’m planning on dressing my younger son as Saint Maximilian
Kolbe. I’ve got a little striped pajama, little glasses, the red P,
etc… I was super excited about this costume but then I started
mentioning it to others and got a lot of backlash and it’s making me
doubt my decision.

People have said its insensitive, inappropriate, in poor taste and makes light of the victims of the Holocaust.

I’m really torn right now because while I don’t want to offend others, I
really love this saint and I see dressing my son up in his honour as a
positive thing.

I saw that your son was dressed as Saint Maximilian Kolbe one year and
I’m wondering if you got any criticism and if so how you responded? I’m
new at this whole All Saints celebration so I’m just wondering where I
need to draw the line between political correctness and dressing my son
as an awesome saint.

I look forward to hearing your take on this!


My Answer:

Hey Justine,

Wow, I’m so sorry, and I have to say, really surprised. I expect that some people aren’t going to “get” our cephalophore St. Denis or body-less St. John the Baptist costumes, or our skinned St. Bartholomew, or our bullet-riddled Bl. Miguel Pro. They are, admittedly, pretty intense.

We don’t intend to be irreverent or insensitive, we just intend to be truthful. ESPECIALLY since these things are still happening in the world. Christians are still being martyred! All the more reason that my kids should know about these great saints. It seems ridiculous to me to limit the saints that my kids can dress up as, and learn about, and admire, to only saints who died a nice, tidy, non-shocking death. That’s just not the truth of the martyrs.

It’s my understanding that many Catholic schools and homeschool groups specifically ban any bloody depictions of martyrs. Thank the Good Lord ours’ does not, because that would disallow at least a quarter of our kids’ All Saints’ Day costumes over the years. I’m sure all those folks mean well, but we don’t choose to shield even our young children from learning the stories of the martyrs or seeing depictions of their martyrdoms. In our travels, doing that would have meant we’d have had to skip just about every single church in Europe.

Look at the statue of St. John the Baptist on the outside of Chartres Cathedral, or the statue of St. Bartholomew holding his skin inside St. Peter’s, or The Crucifixion of Saint Peter by
Caravaggio, painted for the Cerasi Chapel of Santa Maria del Popolo in
Rome. Are they shocking? Yes. Also beautiful and memorable. Generations of kids have seen them. My kids have seen those statues and that painting in person, and they made an impression. My sons have dressed up as each of those martyrs for All Saints Day. It hasn’t made them cavalier about martyrdom, quite the opposite. It has made them aware of martyrdom and respectful of it. Play is one way kids learn.

I do understand how those particular statues, paintings, and our
costumes depicting those martyrs would surprise some parents. But I think it’s a mistake, and perhaps a result of the fact that mostly moms are in charge of events like this, to purposefully remove stuff that boys think is cool from our celebration of/study of the saints, just because it isn’t what speaks to us or our daughters. My girls like Disney princess movies. Great news! There are princess saints. My boys like war movies and superhero movies and cowboys and Indians movies. Pretty much every one of those movies is going to have a bloody death or ten. There are plenty of saints that would fit right in there too. And if we let our boys get to know them, the saints can become an inspiration to them.

St. Issac Jogues (one of my boys’ choice of saint for this year) is a martyr, himself moved by the martyrs that came before him:

Jogues was inspired by the missionaries that had returned to France in
1636: Father Brebeuf, Father Charles Lalement and Father Masse to
venture to New France.
These missionaries told Jogues of their hardships, treacheries and
tortures which ordinarily awaited them by the native population, as
missionaries in New France. Their accounts however, increased Jogues’
desire to “devote himself to labor there for the conversion and welfare
of the natives”. (wikipedia)

But in your case you’re not even talking about a bloody costume. I just can’t wrap my head around anyone in a Catholic organization who would throw an All Saints’ Day costume party, then believe that to dress up as a saint who was killed in the holocaust, when he offered to take the place of another man, so that man might return to his family . . . is somehow insensitive to holocaust victims. That’s bonkers. It only honors holocaust victims when we teach our children about St. Maximilian Kolbe.

Maybe the confusion comes because some people’s take on Halloween is to dress up as a celebrity you don’t like to ridicule that person. All Saints Day costumes are the EXACT OPPOSITE of that. I would urge you to use this as a teachable moment. Stay strong, stay Catholic, stay awesome!


Just in case you’re wondering what the Tierneys are planning for this year, here’s a sneak peek at our plans for Twofer Halloween/All Saints’ Day costumes . . .




The boys:

I think Mary Jane will be a little St. Kateri Tekakwitha sidekick to the brothers. And, fair warning if you know me in real life, the North American Martyrs costumes are probably going to involve some of these:

(But most likely this homemade version.) Because that’s how it went down:

We just really can’t help ourselves.

More costume inspiration can be found in the following posts:

Over 150 All-Saints Day Costumes for Kids

Over 150 MORE All Saints Day Costumes for Kids

Costumes for All Saints Day AND Halloween: One Part Catholic, Two Parts Awesome

Last Minute Twofer Costumes for Halloween AND All Saints Day

Hallowtide . . . It’s How We Roll: All Saints Day Costumes for Awesome Kids Only


And here’s some other stuff:

Halloween Movies to Spook the Whole Family

Spooky Stories for the Whole Family (and how to get them for free)

Scary Stories: Empowering Kids Since 1812

Praying for the Dead With Children

Disclaimer: I am not a theologian, nor am I an official spokesperson for the Catholic Church. (You’re thinking of this guy.)
If you read anything on this blog that is contrary to Church teaching,
please consider it my error (and let me know!). I’m not a doctor or an
expert on anything in particular. I’m just one person with a lot of
experience parenting little kids and a desire to share my joy in
marriage, mothering, and my faith.

If you’ve got a question,
please send it along to catholicallyear @ gmail . com . Please let me
know if you prefer that I change your name if I use your question on the


  1. Sara Boyle

    I am shocked. I have never heard of anyone opposed to a St. Maximilian prisoner costume! He's usually depicted that way, or with at least half priest/half prisoner. I'm with you—honor him and other holocaust victims by telling the story and remembering what they went through.

    I wish you were around to inspire me when my kids were little! I could manage a saint costume for the 6 of them, but they had to scrounge the dressup box for Halloween. You're so creative!

    • Kendra

      That was my original policy, too! I'll do your saint costume, you throw together something for Halloween. But then we starting doing the twofer thing!

  2. Melissa Hunter-Kilmer

    Golly, even traditional Halloween costumes can be gory! What about mummies? DEAD. BODY. Are those scrupulous parents aware that death exists?

    • Kendra

      Yeah, I'm not sure what they're trying to achieve, exactly.

  3. Kirby

    It's a good reminder that these terrible events in history are complex. The truth is that Catholic saints and martyrs were also in those camps, and it's entirely appropriate to honor them via All Saints costume.
    Truth may be uncomfortable, but that doesn't make it wrong.

    The North American martyrs is Sith idea is just fantabulous.
    And I say this as a half-Native person who can see complexity in historical events. 🙂

    • Kendra

      I'm so glad, Kirby! The story of the North American Martyrs is so impressive. St. John de Brebeuf spent years living with the Huron, learning their language from nothing. The French Jesuits who dedicated their lives to the indigenous people of North America were really impressive. And, besides the very tragic, but unintentional and unforeseeable transmission of diseases, it doesn't appear that anyone had anything bad to say about them. Well, the Iroquois thought they were evil magicians. But that was part of the disease thing.

  4. Mary @ Better Than Eden

    I think this is just another case where intention is so very very important. If your intention is to honor the life and sacrifice of that saint, then it can be praiseworthy. If it's simply to shock, gross out, or win the contest, then it's not.

    I've never heard of St. Max being controversial! I can't imagine anyone intending their depiction of him to be a mockery. That said, I can see why there may be some limits imposed on costumes. If a costume is so real-looking and grotesque that it will truly give little children present nightmares or it is clearly for attention and shock value, then I think in charity, that it's okay to set limits. I don't think the saints themselves would feel honored by that. It reminds me of the arguments between those who think it's okay to show graphic depictions of abortion victims and those who don't. It is very very real and true and the result of sin but intention matters as does respecting the innocence of children and the victims themselves.

    I love your creativity (and energy!) in getting two costumes prepared for each kid! I just don't have it in me to do both so All Saints it is!

    • Kendra

      Yes, that's a really good point Mary. I am not in favor of graphic depictions of abortion, except in very special circumstances. We do try to walk the line between cool/exciting and nightmare-inducing. I hope we manage it.

  5. Shanna Duggan

    I would say that I don't understand the controversy either, but there are so many "confused" people out there. I went on a tour of the Holocaust museum in DC with a group and one member commented "I don't know why we are here, the Holocaust was a European thing." WHAT???!!!! I wish my DS's school dressed up for All Saints, it would be an excellent way to educate people.

  6. Amy S.

    I'd like to explain some of what I think the controversy could be about: I am a convert and, admittedly, very critical of anything related to Halloween. I'm still learning about All Saints/ Souls and liturgical living (and this blog has helped immensely,) but I have a very negative reaction to some of the things we Catholics do because of the way I grew up. I was raised to believe that Halloween is evil. That darkness and grotesque behaviors stem from its celebration and that you (as a Christian) are to combat this darkness by being rays of light (no blood!). Even though I'm learning about the TRUE history of All Hallow's Even, All Saints, and All Souls, the whole thing still just makes me very uncomfortable. This attitude has crept from Protestant groups into all sorts of Christian thought; it even affects Catholics. So, even though I agree with Kendra and Justine, just remember that most people who have that negative reaction are just worried about your intent. You will have to keep educating people about this until the day you die. There will never be a Halloween where you don't have to talk about this. Again, I know my feelings are stemming from a deep-seeded prejudice about Catholic behavior, but I have to make a clear effort to "like" Halloween and anything related to it. It's hard for me (I don't even like to have pumpkins on my front porch. Pumpkins you guys!?!?!?! What's wrong with me???) So, just my two cents to help anyone reading understand where the backlash may be coming from.

  7. Allison Howard

    This was fortuitous for me! We are thinking of naming our next baby (due in 3 weeks) either Max or Kolbe because of my devotion to Maximilian Kolbe! Loved reading a relevant post about him as we pray about it. Not sure it's a boy, of course, but we got thrown when we realized our first choice, Kilian, is really similar to my 3-year-old's name, Vivian. Any opinions on whether Kilian and Vivian are too match-match or rhyming? Are we better off going Kolbe or Max? Help me, people. I love naming other peoples babies and then get much to up in my head with my own!

    • Kendra

      I think you could do it! They don't completely rhyme, after all. My sister and I have names that both begin with K, I think it's more like that. Just similar in feel, but NOT too matchy. Good luck!

    • Lua Nova

      If you need some guidance on Catholic baby naming, check Kate Towne's blog:

    • Beth

      Regarding the Kilian and Vivian… We have a Aubrey and Audrey (not twins or sisters)…and it is thoroughly confusing…but we love them both anyway ;).

  8. Mary

    To some, the Holocaust is untouchable and any reference to it is automatically rejected. Certainly you can't compare abortion to the Holocaust. I don't get it but I certainly wouldn't expect it to show up in this context! Unless it's the cultural appropriation angle… in that case the Holocaust "belongs" to the Jewish people and all others can't go there. Never mind the Catholics murdered. In which case your Mary Jane as a Native American… oh my gosh I can not even. So triggered.

    • Kendra

      I think the exchange between (the other) Mary and I above is maybe confusing. We didn't mean to that any Catholic would under any circumstance represent abortion in a costume. The comment exchange was about whether it is appropriate to use the shock of gore to get one's point across: that abortion is wrong, or that a particular saint died heroically. Mary and I agree that we would not want to cross a line with our saint costumes into shock and horror of the kind sometimes used by well-meaning anti-abortion protestors.

      I do understand where people are coming from in wanting to protect the Holocaust, as it were. But I think in the proper context, with the proper intent, it is a way to honor both this particular saint AND all the other victim of this atrocity.

      I suppose SOMEONE might be offended by Mary Jane dressed as St. Kateri, but I'd hope that they'd instead think it was cool that I would choose a Native American as a role model for my daughters!

    • Dixie

      Believe it or not, people are offended! I read a piece in the Washington Post about a woman not allowing her daughter to dress up as her American Girl doll (Kaya, a Native American) for Halloween because it was "cultural appropriation." I think this is really unreasonable and untenable. We cannot both encourage our children to admire someone (play with a doll/read about a saint) and then tell them that it's wrong to pretend they are that person in imaginary play.

  9. Catherine

    I think we actually do children a disservice by attempting to shield them from this kind of thing – if we don't allow them to fully engage with some of the horrific realities of life (the Holocaust, gruesome martyrdoms etc.), these subjects can bsomehow become less "real" to them. After all, we have a duty to talk to our children about the Crucifixion…

    On a slightly lighter note, it's great to hear that one of your boys is dressing up as St Isaac Jogues! He's not particularly well known in Europe, but I got to know of him through my husband's family, who are related to him in some way 🙂

  10. Tara

    We have a daughter named Kateri and the only thing I worry about in terms of dressing her like her Saint patroness is representing her truthfully. We're not dressing like her this year, but when we do I want to make sure we are trying to get as close to her actual attire as possible (ie not just wearing something I've seen in a costume store labeled "Native" and making sure it at least tries to emulate what she actually would have worn).

  11. Kolbe Disselkamp

    I think it would be fine for you to go with Kolbe regardless of the sex of the baby. My parents named me Emma Kolbe (yes, woman here) but I've always gone by Kolbe.

  12. Lua Nova

    I think maybe the problem those mothers were addressing wasn't the martyrdom, but the symbolism of the pajama itself. It represents the way the nazis viewed the prisoners: inferior to them, non-deserving of any kind of rights. So maybe they don't want to evoke that view/perspective of the world?
    Because, if they were totally against kids seeing blood, I mean they wouldn't allow them to see a crucifix, right?

  13. signorina g.

    mmmm, actual jewish person with jewish relatives dead in the camps. sure, the holocaust doesn't "belong" to the only the jews, although we did lose a fe billion of our own in it. You catholic people are very welcome to have some: for example I'm sure lots of gay catholic people were killed, too. And Maximilian Kolbe, sure. But you do know there were children there too? wearing the striped pajamas? some families lost their children that way, and you dressing your child in a striped pajama as a costume, even if it's meant to be referring to a specific saint, is distasteful for that reason, among many others. i'm sure kolbe wore other outfits during his lifetime, if I were you I would stick to those 🙂

  14. Tess

    I completely agree that kids should be exposed to and educated about heroes in whatever form they happen to take, and that we do a disservice to our children and to those heroes by glossing over nasty aspects of their experiences. I am in no way suggesting that we stop teaching our children about Maximilian Kolbe. However, there is a difference between the representation, through a child's costume, of suffering that happened in the year 18 or the year 1800 versus that which occurred seventy years ago. The difference is that there are still people in basically every community who were affected in some very personal way by the tragedy of the Holocaust. It isn't a matter of what's "right" or "wrong"–it's a matter of what is respectful and what is tasteful.

  15. Liz

    I tend to agree here. I grew up dressing for All Saints day for (Catholic) school (just setting up my tenure with this practice). Many dressed as martyrs and shared their stories. The school did, however, have guidelines surrounding gore. Often, the intent of guidelines is to maintain focus on the celebration–which is certainly how I saw the guidelines then and think of them now. Of course it's up to any school/organization/parent group to decide what is considered acceptable, but I'm sure our school kept in mind the Kindergarteners who might not have been prepared to see the martyrdom depicted visually. I am also impressed by the way many thought to depict the saints-sometimes dressing as them in their youth, as a depiction of their patronage or profession. No saint was "off limits", but we were certainly asked to be thoughtful in how we depicted the Saint. There are many ways to do it, and I wouldn't fault an organization for setting guidelines to accommodate varying opinions on appropriateness and also to maintain focus.

  16. alyshatree

    As a Catholic Native American women, I am not offended that any child would dress as St. Kateri, who is my patron Saint. Little ones should learn about other cultures and witness role models aka saints in a variety of nationalities. It's not stealing someone's culture, ethnicity but honouring each other.

  17. Julie Matte

    I think dressing up as a saint in a gory fashion — showing the death the martyrs endured — is distasteful. Yes, it is important to share how the martyrs were willing to suffer and die because of their faith in Jesus; however, to make light of torture by dressing up with their skin hanging from them or their breasts cut out and blood pouring down, etc., is conforming to this world of glorifying gore. I'd bet there is a lot of laughter when someone comes up with an innovative costume that depicts a saint's death in a realistic way. A lot of 'Oh wow, that is awesome!' Can you truthfully say that there isn't more celebration in the gore rather than a true understanding of the pain and horror these saints experienced? There are better ways to share the faith of the martyrs than a Halloween party where the saints' pain is exploited. Instead of laughter and exclaims of praise over costumes well done, there should be crying and horror over the reality of what happened to these saints. We are being desensitized.


  1. That's Mrs. Tierney to You, Squirt (here's why) - Catholic All Year - […] All Saints’ Day Costume Backlash: only neat and tidy saints need apply? […]
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Hi! I’m Kendra.

For twenty years now, I’ve been using food, prayer, and conversation based around the liturgical calendar to share the lives of the saints and the beautiful truths and traditions of our Catholic faith. My own ten children, our friends and neighbors, and people just like you have been on this journey with me.

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