The Catholic Roots of Halloween

A cloud of mystery surrounds Halloween. There are some who believe it is the “devil’s night,” while others it is simply a secular night of dressing in costumes to go trick-or-treating. There is more to the modern Halloween traditions, and they go back centuries.

It’s a natural reaction for Catholics to distance themselves from anything that involves the occult. Rather than disregard Halloween all together, one must search the depths that surround an important Solemnity and is deeply imbedded in Catholic tradition.

Asking for the saints to intercede on our behalf has been part of Catholic Tradition since early Christianity, and is also deeply rooted in Sacred Scripture (cf. Revelation 5:8, Hebrews 12:1, and 2 Maccabees 12:39-45). In the early 8th century Pope Gregory III instituted All Hallows’ Day (or All Saints’ Day), on November 1, as a Solemn day–also a Holy Day of Obligation–to remember those who have attained heaven. Within a century this Solemnity spread throughout the entire Church thanks to Pope Gregory IV and was declared a universal feast day.

The Irish-Gaelic winter festival, known as Samhain, began to be celebrated hundreds of years after the institution of the Solemnity of All Saints’ Day, and it’s vigil, All Hallows’ Evening. Samhain was a festival that marked the beginning of winter in Ireland and was practiced by non-Christian pagans. Some Neopagans in recent years claim that Halloween has pagan origins and is derived from the pagan festival, Samhain, but the burden of proof simply doesn’t stack up.

The word Halloween is a contraction of All Hallows’ Evening, and is the vigil of the Solemnity of All Saints’ Day. The night before All Saints’ Day people would offer prayers to the dead, sometimes within cemeteries themselves since they are “hallowed” ground. In parts of Europe, people would light bonfires and carve turnips (or in America, pumpkins). They would also collect treats, known as soul cakes. Soul cakes were small round cakes topped with a mark of the cross to signify alms. The tradition of giving these sweet, savory treats was celebrated in Britain and Ireland during the Middle Ages. This tradition continues today in some countries, such as Portugal.

Local customs and traditions varied from different areas, but the aspects of Halloween, such as believing in ghosts and demons, were deeply rooted among the Catholic people. Catholics believed that at certain times of the year, Christmas included, that the “veil” between Purgatory, Heaven, and even Hell, became more thin and one could see the souls in Purgatory (ghosts) and demons. This eventually led to people dressing up in costumes.

The first major attack on Halloween became apparent in Post-reformation England where the celebrations of local Halloween customs were outlawed. In the Northeastern United States, Puritans outlawed both Halloween and Christmas. It wasn’t until the 19th century when Irish-Catholic immigrants revitalized Halloween and All Saints’ Day in the United States.

The opposition on Halloween continued into the 20th century, largely by anti-Catholic and anti-Irish groups. Halloween was also becoming more commercialized, and secularized. Halloween and Christmas traditions and customs that were once so deeply rooted in Catholicism had been whitewashed and deemphasized by the secular culture.

The attacks on Halloween surged again in the 1970s and 80s with anti-Catholic fundamentalists. Halloween began to be referred to as “the devil’s night” and urban legends started to spread to dissuade people from partaking in festive celebrations. Horror and “slasher” movies became synonymous with the “scares and frights” of Halloween, such as John Carpenter’s 1978 cult-classic, Halloween.

Today, many Catholics are unaware of the Catholic roots of Halloween, along with the more-so recent anti-Catholic attacks on Halloween. Since the 8th century we have celebrated the Solemnity of All Saints Day and its vigil. It’s a special day for us to ask the saints to intercede and pray for us. Whether one decides to participate in the celebration of the vigil, All Hallows’ Eve, is a personal choice. Dressing in costumes, carving pumpkins (and turnips), and collecting treats have been done for many centuries, not to mention praying for the dead, and they are all Catholic. Celebrate Halloween with an All Saints’ party. Dress up as your favorite saint, play games, collect treats. You could even decorate candles to be used for praying for your deceased loved ones. It’s time to put the Catholic back in Halloween.

Traditional Halloween folk song (chorus):
A soul! a soul! a soul-cake!
Please good Missis, a soul-cake!
An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry.
One for Peter, two for Paul
Three for Him who made us all.

by John Connor

Angels & Demons

People have always been intrigued by angels (and demons). I think because there’s a certain mystery surrounding angels and their role in salvation history.

The word “angel” is derived from the Latin word angelus which means “messenger.” Angels are pure spirits. They do not have a natural body like you and I. Angels cannot die or be substantially changed. Sometimes angels have taken on a bodily form for specific purposes as we see in Luke’s Gospel at the Annunciation. The angel Gabriel visited our Blessed Mother in a human form to announce she was to be the mother of Jesus.  When an angel takes on a human form, he expresses its angelic power using the body as an instrument.

“We are like children, who stand in need of masters to enlighten us and direct us; God has provided for this, by appointing his angels to be our teachers and guides.” – St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica

Angels have intellectual knowledge, or creatural knowledge, and have no need to learn. At the moment of their existence God infused them with all the knowledge they need to perform their duties, and know only what God wills for them to know. The intellect of an angel is incomprehensible to us. All angels do not possess the same level of knowledge.

There is a hierarchy among the angels. The imparting of knowledge by God is given to the higher levels of angels and flows through to the lower level of angels. The lower angels are illuminated or instructed by the higher angels.

Within the angelic hierarchy there are three orders. The highest hierarchy includes the Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones. Lucifer may have been either a Seraph or Cherub. The middle hierarchy include the Dominations, Virtues, and Powers. The lower hierarchy includes Principalities, Archangels, and Angels. The lower hierarchy has the most interaction with humans, especially our guardian angels.

To put into perspective how many possible angelic orders there are, every person that has ever lived or will live all have guardian angels.

Just like human beings, angels have free will. Even though angels have a great deal of knowledge they still have the ability to say no to God.

Although angels were created in heaven and in the state of sanctifying grace, they did not initially possess the beatific vision. Angels possess both an intellect and will. Because angels have free will means they are able to sin. Some of the angels did sin. These fallen angels (demons) wanted to be like God. The sin of pride is what caused the demons to fall from grace. The angels that did not reject God’s grace went on to possess the beatific vision. Beatified angels therefore cannot sin.

Demons are unrepentant of their sin, therefore have freely made their choice not to follow God, hence they are in hell for all eternity. Lucifer and the other demons desire to wage a spiritual war against mankind. They want nothing more than to separate us from God. The angels protect us from the diabolical attacks of demons, which are often times subtle. Demons are very good at temptation.

While in the desert for forty days, Jesus was tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1-11). The evil one threw everything he had at our Lord, yet Christ prevailed and is our example how we are to withstand his evil, yet subtle, attacks. Some believe that Lucifer tested our Lord to see if He really was the Son of God.

“It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.” – C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters

People have asked what causes a person to be spiritually attacked by a demon, whether it be temptation, oppression, or worse case, possession. Demons can provoke subtle attacks even on the most devout Catholic, but they also look for a foothold in the door. Usually a “gateway” sin, such as pornography. I know people look a blind eye when pornography is mentioned, but there is a reason why it causes so much turmoil in a person’s life, especially married couples.

Thanks to Hollywood people have become infatuated with demonic possession and exorcism. Father Gary Thomas, an exorcist from the Diocese of San Jose, California gives an inside look to what it’s like to be an exorcist in  “Interview with an Exorcist” (Catholic Answers). Father Thomas experience as an exorcist became the inspiration for the movie, The Rite, starring Sir Anthony Hopkins.

“We should show our affection for the angels, for one day they will be our coheirs just as here below they are our guardians and trustees appointed and set over us by the Father.” –St. Bernard of Clairvaux

Jesus said in Matthew 24:13, “But he that shall persevere to the end, he shall be saved.” We have the Heavenly Hosts and the Communion of Saints on our side in this spiritual battle. With daily prayer and frequenting the sacraments, it’s a steep, uphill battle for Lucifer and the evil ones to attack us. The Real Presence in the Eucharist and the Rosary are powerful weapons against the evil one. We shall prevail.

Pray to your guardian angel and to St. Michael daily. Here is a great prayer to St. Michael the Archangel.

Prayer to St. Michael the Archangel
St. Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle.
Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray,
and do thou,
O Prince of the heavenly hosts,
by the power of God,
thrust into hell Satan,
and all the evil spirits,
who prowl about the world
seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.

by John Connor

Related articles:
Purgatorio
Battling Sin