We thank our co-author, Crow, for allowing us to share this insightful article from her excellent Facebook page, “Venite Prandete”. Go there for links to sources, and for some delicious typical Halloween recipes at the bottom of the article. (CP&S team)
As Catholics we are faced with a question, especially those with young children. Do we engage with Halowe’en, and, if so, on what terms? Do we reject the festivities as a pagan ceremony? Or do we submit to celebrating it in a half-way accommodation by dressing the children as saints, thereby endeavouring to sanctify a festival that is, in the most part, commercialized and empty of meaning?
It may be that the answer is not completely binary and resides in a rediscovery and a reapplication of the traditional Catholic roots of Hallowe’en – that Catholics revisit and recognise Hallowe’en as a Catholic festival which has been appropriated and imbued with the banality and emptiness of atheism and materialism; That we take it back and invest it, once again, with its Catholic identity.
Favourite liturgical commentators, John Zmirak and Denise Matychowiak, in “The Bad Catholics Guide to Good Living” state:
“Some Catholics in America have reacted against the paganizing trend by abandoning Hallowe’en altogether. Influenced by their Evangelical neighbours, they’re giving up on all the hard work their ancestors did to harness the coolest parts of paganism and put them to work and we think that’s a shame. Others try to sanitise the day by dressing their kids as saints and angels. This works pretty well for some of the girls and the boys under five, but after that it gets old mighty quick. Instead, make your All Hallows spooky, meaningful and altogether delicious by throwing a Purgatory Soiree.”
The Feast of All Saints Day is of ancient origin, introduced by Pope Boniface in 615 AD and established as a formal feast day by Pope Gregory III during the 8th century. It was extended to the universal Church in 844 AD and the date was placed at 1st November.
All Souls’ day was initiated in 1048 AD on 2nd November and after Vespers on All Saints Day the Office of the Dead was recited; see generally, Father Weiser, Christian Feasts and Customs, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1952, at p. 307.
Significantly, on the eve of All Saints’ Day, on 31st October, (All Hallows’ Eve), during the medieval period, the bones and relics of the saints were displayed in the church for the Vigil for All Saints, for the veneration by the faithful.
It is true that the origins of some aspects of Hallowe’en were Celtic, deriving from the festival of Samhain. In general, there was an organic development in the early Christian Church in Ireland, whereby the Druid practices subsisted alongside Catholic practice and institutions for hundreds of years. However, as to the claimed pagan origins of Hallowe’en, Scott P Richert observed:
“Despite concerns among some Catholics and other Christians in recent years about the “pagan origins” of Halloween, there really are none. While Christians who are opposed to the celebration of Halloween frequently claim that it descends from the Celtic harvest festival of Samhain, the first attempts to show some connection between the vigil of All Saints and Samhain came over a thousand years after All Saints Day was named a universal feast. There’s no evidence whatsoever that Gregory III or Gregory IV was even aware of Samhain. The pagan festival had stopped being celebrated when the Celtic peoples converted to Christianity hundreds of years before the Feast of All Saints was instituted. In Celtic peasant culture, however, elements of the harvest festival—shorn of their pagan roots—survived, even among Christians, just as the Christmas tree owes its origins to pre-Christian Germanic traditions without being a pagan ritual.”
The modern idea of “trick or treating” arose from the practice of “souling”, where children in villages, (in Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales), went house-to-house and offered to pray for loved ones in return for a treat – which was originally a “soul cake”, (see recipe below). In France, processions on All Hallows featured a figure in a skeleton costume leading a procession of “souls” in a “danse macabre”.
These customs were all referable to the Souls in Purgatory, and connected with the following days of prayer for the communion of Saints and the Holy Souls – Catholic doctrine of belief that cut directly across the Protestant denial of Purgatory advocated by Luther and Calvin. Both Hallowe’en and Christmas were banned by the Puritan government of Elizabethan times in England because they were Catholic, (and thereby superstitious and idolatrous).
The Irish brought their Hallowe’en practices to America at the end of the nineteenth century. Some additions developed which, it is said, are attributable to anti-Catholic aggression in the US, (supposedly, these being the witches costumes). Indeed, the initial criticism of the Irish celebration of Hallowe’en, on the arrival of the Irish immigrants in America, was levelled by Puritans, its basis being that it was Catholic. Hallowe’en, commercialized and secularized, (a bit like the secular Christmas), eventually emerged as the practice of costuming and procession we see today, which America has exported throughout the world.
While there is a commonality in the belief that the veil between the material world and the otherworld is made more accessible on this day, there is a fallacy in attributing too much of Hallowe’en to the Celtic customs that derived from the Druids. Sure, if the major Hallowe’en festivities centre around the lighting of bonfires, then such events are directly referable to the Druid festivities. To light a bonfire is not, however, without more, to perform a pagan ceremony. Similarly, if the focus of the Hallowe’en celebrations involves “bobbing for apples” then one may fondly reminisce on the Roman pagan origins of the practice. However, the vast majority of popular customs revolving around Hallowe’en celebrations involve a celebration of death (and life) which is directly referable to the Catholic customs that developed over centuries in countries around the world. As such, Hallowe’en can be said to be traced to Catholic popular piety, and attempts by us to Catholicize it by avoiding the topic of death contained in it are therefore avoiding a message which is, actually, Catholic, and full of rich meaning.
Hallowe’en is directly connected to the feast days of All Saints and All Souls, as feast days of the departed, in which our thoughts turn to our departed ones and where physical action is taken to make connection with them – to pray for their souls in the Church suffering, to attend their graves, to recognize those already in the Church triumphant and to acknowledge our own mortality.
The Catholic Church has always had an element of bawdiness and irreverence – an aspect of Chaucer, or even Shakespeare – it is never Puritan. However, the bawdiness or irreverence, in its Catholic dimension, (as opposed to secular festivities), is properly to be attended by a reverence for the dead and for life, for the souls and for mortality, all the time accompanied by a joy that flows from the knowledge that our dearest ones are close to us and that death has been vanquished by the Risen Christ. Lighthearted irreverence in the circumstances of these feast days is fully within the concept of a respect for the dead, in a period that endures throughout the month of November, a month devoted to their memory.
In such a context, to engage at the inane and vacuous level of mindless commerce is to miss the beauty of the observance. It need not be a superficial exercise in which children are permitted to gorge themselves on sweets, dress up in ghoulish costumes and that is the end of it. To simply engage at that level is to miss an opportunity to make the three day period one of deeper spiritual meaning for the family – and take it back.
Customs throughout the world in Catholic countries inevitably involve visiting the graves and praying for loved ones.
Scott P Richert advises to say the prayer to St Michael before engaging in Hallowe’en activities and to ensure that children are fully educated as to the meaning of the activities and the need to avoid certain attitudes and behaviour. He advocated that it is how you choose to celebrate Hallowe’en that determines whether or not it is a holy or empty experience.
SUGGESTIONS FOR HALLOWE’EN, ALL SAINTS AND ALL SOULS
* Educate children as to the deeper meaning of Hallowe’en – its religious significance and its underscoring of our mortality;
• Visit the graves of family members on All Souls Day, with blessed candles and pray for their souls;
• Set up a Home Altar with photos of loved ones and blessed candles – a place of respect and remembrance for the children – children should be encouraged to reminisce about their relatives who are deceased.
• For the whole of the month of November, (the month of Holy Souls), at meal times, say the prayer for the dead at the close of Grace both before and after meals, set out below:
Grace Before Meals: “Bless us Our Lord for these, Thy gifts, which of Thy bounty we are about to receive, through Christ, Our Lord. Amen.May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.”
Thanks after meals: “We give Thee thanks O Lord, for Thy great bounty, through Christ Our Lord. Amen.May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.”
* At the end of the evening say a Rosary, (or a decade of the Rosary), for all family members, and close by reading De Profundis, (Psalm 129).