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