The Catholic Origins of Halloween
We’ve all heard the allegations: Halloween is a pagan rite dating back to some pre-Christian festival among the Celtic Druids that escaped church suppression. Even today modern pagans and witches continue to celebrate this ancient festival. If you let your kids go trick-or-treating, they will be worshiping the devil and pagan gods.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The origins of Halloween are, in fact, very Christian and rather American. Halloween falls on October 31 because of a pope, and its observances are the result of medieval Catholic piety.
It’s true that the ancient Celts of Ireland and Britain celebrated a minor festival on October 31–as they did on the last day of most other months of the year. However, Halloween falls on the last day of October because the Solemnity of All Saints, or “All Hallows,” falls on November 1. The feast in honor of all the saints in heaven used to be celebrated on May 13, but Pope Gregory III (d. 741) moved it to November 1, the dedication day of All Saints Chapel in St. Peter’s at Rome. Later, in the 840s, Pope Gregory IV commanded that All Saints be observed everywhere. And so the holy day spread to Ireland.
The day before was the feast’s evening vigil, “All Hallows Even,” or “Hallowe’en.” In those days Halloween didn’t have any special significance for Christians or for long-dead Celtic pagans.
In 998, St. Odilo, the abbot of the powerful monastery of Cluny in southern France, added a celebration on November 2. This was a day of prayer for the souls of all the faithful departed. This feast, called All Souls Day, spread from France to the rest of Europe.
So now the Church had feasts for all those in heaven and all those in purgatory. What about those in the other place? It seems Irish Catholic peasants wondered about the unfortunate souls in hell. After all, if the souls in hell are left out when we celebrate those in heaven and purgatory, they might be unhappy enough to cause trouble. So it became customary to bang pots and pans on All Hallows Even to let the damned know they were not forgotten. Thus, in Ireland at least, all the dead came to be remembered–even if the clergy were not terribly sympathetic to Halloween and never allowed All Damned Day into the church calendar.
But that still isn’t our celebration of Halloween. Our traditions on this holiday center on dressing up in fanciful costumes, which isn’t Irish at all. Rather, this custom arose in France during the 14th and 15th centuries. Late medieval Europe was hit by repeated outbreaks of the bubonic plague–the Black Death–and it lost about half its population. It is not surprising that Catholics became more concerned about the afterlife.
More Masses were said on All Souls Day, and artistic representations were devised to remind everyone of their own mortality. We know these representations as the “danse macabre”, or “dance of death,” which was commonly painted on the walls of cemeteries and shows the devil leading a daisy chain of people–popes, kings, ladies, knights, monks, peasants, lepers, etc.–into the tomb. Sometimes the dance was presented on All Souls Day itself as a living tableau with people dressed up in the garb of various states of life.
But the French dressed up on All Souls, not Halloween; and the Irish, who had Halloween, did not dress up. How the two became mingled probably happened first in the British colonies of North America during the 1700s, when Irish and French Catholics began to intermarry. The Irish focus on Hell gave the French masquerades an even more macabre twist.
But as every young ghoul knows, dressing up isn’t the point; the point is getting as many goodies as possible. Where on earth did “trick or treat” come in? “Treat or treat” is perhaps the oddest and most American addition to Halloween and is the unwilling contribution of English Catholics.
During the penal period of the 1500s to the 1700s in England, Catholics had no legal rights. They could not hold office and were subject to fines, jail and heavy taxes. It was a capital offense to say Mass, and hundreds of priests were martyred.
Occasionally, English Catholics resisted, sometimes foolishly. One of the most foolish acts of resistance was a plot to blow up the Protestant King James I and his Parliament with gunpowder. This was supposed to trigger a Catholic uprising against the oppressors. The ill-conceived Gunpowder Plot was foiled on November 5, 1605, when the man guarding the gunpowder, a reckless convert named Guy Fawkes, was captured and arrested. He was hanged; the plot fizzled.
November 5, Guy Fawkes Day, became a great celebration in England, and so it remains. During the penal periods, bands of revelers would put on masks and visit local Catholics in the dead of night, demanding beer and cakes for their celebration: trick or treat!
Guy Fawkes Day arrived in the American colonies with the first English settlers. But by the time of the American Revolution, old King James and Guy Fawkes had pretty much been forgotten. Trick or treat, though, was too much fun to give up, so eventually it moved to October 31, the day of the Irish-French masquerade. And in America, trick or treat wasn’t limited to Catholics.
The mixture of various immigrant traditions we know as Halloween had become a fixture in the United States by the early 1800s. To this day, it remains unknown in Europe, even in the countries from which some of the customs originated.
But what about witches? Well, they are one of the last additions. The greeting card industry added them in the late 1800s. Halloween was already “ghoulish,” so why not give witches a place on greeting cards? The Halloween card failed (although it has seen a recent resurgence in popularity), but the witches stayed.
So too, in the late 1800s, ill-informed folklorists introduced the jack-o’-lantern. They thought that Halloween was Druidic and pagan in origin. Lamps made from turnips (not pumpkins) had been part of ancient Celtic harvest festivals, so they were translated to the American Halloween celebration.
The next time someone claims that Halloween is a cruel trick to lure your children into devil worship, I suggest you tell them the real origin of All Hallows Eve and invite them to discover its Christian significance, along with the two greater and more important Catholic festivals that follow it.
From Catholic Culture
History of All Hallows' Eve
The Solemnity of All Saints is celebrated on November 1. It is a solemnity, a holyday of obligation and the day that the Church honors all of God's saints, even those who have not been canonized by the Church. It is a family day of celebration—we celebrate the memory of those family members (sharing with us in the Mystical Body, the doctrine of the Communion of Saints) now sharing eternal happiness in the presence of God. We rejoice that they have reached their eternal goal and ask their prayers on our behalf so that we, too, may join them in heaven and praise God through all eternity.The honoring of all Christian martyrs of the Faith was originally celebrated on May 13, the date established by the fourth century. Pope Boniface IV in 615 established it as the "Feast of All Martyrs" commemorating the dedication of the Pantheon, an ancient Roman temple, into a Christian church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the martyrs. By 741, the feast included not only martyrs, but all the saints in heaven as well, with the title changing to "Feast of All Saints" by 840.
In 844, Pope Gregory IV transferred the feast to November 1st, timing it around the harvests to be able to provide food for the pilgrims. Some scholars believe this was to substitute a feast for the pagan celebrations during that time of year. Pope Sixtus IV in 1484 established November 1 as a holyday of obligation and gave it both a vigil (known today as "All Hallows' Eve" or "Hallowe'en") and an eight-day period or octave to celebrate the feast.
This feast is marked with liturgical observances that have changed over the centuries. By 1955, the octave and vigil of All Saints were abrogated. Instead of a separate vigil on the calendar, the celebration begins the evening before, as mentioned in The General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar:
Solemnities are counted as the principal days in the calendar and their observance begins with evening prayer of the preceding day. Some also have their own vigil Mass for use when Mass is celebrated in the evening of the preceding day.In the Divine Office, or Liturgy of the Hours, solemnities and Sundays are begin with Evening Prayer I (the evening before) and Evening Prayer II (the evening of the solemnity).
In England, saints or holy people are called "hallowed", hence the name "All Hallows’ Day". The evening, or "e'en" before the feast became popularly known as "All Hallows' Eve" or even shorter, "Hallowe'en".
Many recipes and traditions have come down for this evening, "All Hallows’ Eve" (now known as Halloween), such as pancakes, boxty bread and boxty pancakes, barmbrack (Irish fruit bread with hidden charms), colcannon (combination of cabbage and boiled potatoes). This was also known as "Nutcrack Night" in England, where the family gathered around the hearth to enjoy cider and nuts and apples. In England "soul cakes" are another traditional food. People would go begging for a "soul cake" and promise to pray for the donor's departed friends and family in exchange for the treat, an early version of today's "Trick or Treat."
The Church designates November 2 as the Feast of All Souls, a day to pray for all the departed souls in Purgatory. The feasts of All Saints and All Souls fall back-to-back to express the Christian belief of the "Communion of Saints." The Communion of Saints is the union of all the faithful on earth (the Church Militant), the saints in Heaven (the Church Triumphant) and the Poor Souls in Purgatory (the Church Suffering), with Christ as the Head. They are bound together by a supernatural bond. The Church Militant (those on earth still engaged in the struggle to save their souls) can venerate the Church Triumphant, and the saints can intercede with God for those still on earth. Both the faithful on earth and the saints in heaven can pray for the souls in Purgatory. During these two days we see the Communion of Saints really in action!
On All Souls Day and November 1-8 one can gain plenary indulgences for the Poor Souls. See Praying for the Dead and Gaining Indulgences for more details.
Exploring the Christian Roots of Halloween
We have entered the 21st century. It is getting harder to be "in" the world but not "of" the world. How are we to tread carefully to find balance in a secular holiday? We have an onslaught of Halloween witches, ghosts, goblins, vampires, etc. everywhere we turn. How do we bring a message to our children to say that being a Christian does not mean that we cannot have fun and enjoy some secular practices? How do we convey that that we must not constantly be negative and condemn everything?
To answer this, we must to put on the mind of the Church. All through the centuries the Church has taken secular feasts and tried to "sanctify" or "Christianize" them. This is one of the reasons that December 25 was chosen for Christmas—that was the time of the winter solstice or Saturnalia festival, with many pagan traditions during their celebration. The feast day of All Saints itself came from the dedication of the Pantheon, a pagan temple, into a Christian church, undoubtedly another way of sanctifying the secular and pagan.
Missionaries familiarize themselves with the culture and religion of the country before they can convert the native people. The missionaries have to be able find some elements in their culture that can help these people identify and understand Christianity at their level. St. Paul tried it with the Greeks. Seeing their altar to the Unknown God, he saw that through their own pagan altar he might bring them to Christianity.
It is beautiful to remember that we can recognize and enjoy simple earthly pleasures as gifts from God. Many of the practices of Halloween are innocent fun and some deal with healthy reminders of death, sin and the devil. Some parts of Halloween can be extreme. Since the All Saints and All Souls feasts are back-to-back, we can balance some of the focus of Halloween to the Communion of Saints in action. We combine honoring the saints in heaven, remembering our loved ones and then earn graces for our own souls by prayer and actions. Through this approach we see the Mystical Body in action.
There are many writings to help one explore the Christian roots of the Halloween festivities. In the activities section there are ideas for an All Hallows' Eve Party to present a fun atmosphere for children. See also other ideas from Florence Berger's Cooking for Christ and Mary Reed Newland's The Year and Our Children. These ideas help use every opportunity as a moment of grace, and a teaching lesson, not a spirit of avoidance of Halloween. One can use the opportunity to honor the saints, pray for the Poor Souls and prepare oneself spiritually for two great feastdays of the Catholic Church, All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day.
By Jennifer Gregory Miller, ©2003.