It’s that time of the year again! Children dress up as superheroes and villains, as ghosts and ghouls. Network television begins showing horror movies and managers deck their stores in cobwebs and pumpkins. Halloween is also when pagans complain that their holiday, Samhain, was stolen away by the evil Christians. History, however, tells a different story.
The Meaning of Halloween
Every culture, not only the Celtic one that created Samhain, has a holiday that remembered the deceased. For example, Koreans have a three-day harvest festival called “Chuseok”, during which they remember their ancestors. The Chinese celebrate the Hungry Ghost Festival and the Cambodians have Pchum Ben.
For Catholics, remembering the dead has a special meaning. We have the Church Militant, Church Suffering, and Church Triumphant. The Church Militant is the Church that exists here on Earth. The Church Suffering refers to those in Purgatory and Church Triumphant are the saints in Heaven. When we remember the dead, whether they be in Purgatory or Heaven, we are remembering fellow members of the Body of Christ. We’re remembering family, whether blood related or not.
That’s all well and good, you may be saying, but what does that have to do with Halloween?
The word “Halloween” is a corruption of the phrase “All Hallows’ Eve”. Hallow is an archaic term that means “holy” or “saint”. Therefore, the phrase means “All Saints’ Eve”. Halloween is the night before All Saints’ Day, when the Catholic Church remembers the Church Triumphant. Whether or not the person may believe, people partying on that night are celebrating (for better or for worse) the vigil of a Catholic holy day that has nothing to do with Samhain other than timing.
A Lesson in History
The feast of All Saint’s and its vigil first appeared in Rome (far from the Celtic motherland) in the 8th century under Pope Gregory III. His successor, Gregory IV, extended the feast to the entire Church. There is zero evidence that either Gregory was aware of a Celtic harvest festival known as Samhain that once occurred at around the same time.
Note that I said “once occurred”. By this point in history, the Celtic people had long converted to Christianity. Samhain might still have been celebrated but only as a celebration of the harvest, which would keep them alive during the winter. However, it no longer carried the heavy pagan connotations because the people were no longer pagan.
When All Saints’ and its vigil reached the Celtic lands, the peasants incorporated their own culture into the celebrations. This is something the Catholic Church has long encouraged, provided the additions don’t promote heresy. Therefore, the traditions of carving turnips (and, later, pumpkins), going door to door for treats, and bonfires all found their place in the holiday.
In fact, in Ireland, peasants dubbed October 31 to be “All Damned Day”. All Saints’ celebrates souls in Heaven and All Souls’ (on November 2nd) remembers the dead in Purgatory. The Irish reasoned that if the souls in Hell were left out, they would cause trouble. Therefore, they banged pots and pans to let those in Hell know they weren’t forgotten.
In post-Reformation England, anything that smelled even vaguely “Papist” (i.e., Catholic) was suppressed, culminating in the outlawing of Christmas in 1647. It would be years before Halloween could be openly celebrated but it was still vilified by anti-Catholic and anti-Irish prejudice.
Should Catholics Celebrate Halloween?
Even though there are no true pagan origins for Halloween, there’s still the fact that commercialism has infected it with blood and gore on one hand and sex on the other. Therefore, wouldn’t it be better for Catholics to just avoid the holiday altogether?
I argue, however, that because of what society has done to the holiday is precisely why Catholics should celebrate it. We shouldn’t treat it like a purely secular night but recognize its religious roots. By doing so, we bring alive what the night is all about. After all, we don’t stop celebrating Christmas because of the rampant commercialism and secularization. If anything, we rejoice all the more in the Christian elements in order to highlight them. We should do the same with Halloween.
A Catholic Halloween
There are several ways you can make this All Hallows’ a Catholic one. Here are four:
There is a long tradition in the Church of people dressing up as a saint. This is especially popular for children. The costumes don’t require a large budget, either, only a little creativity. There are even some “bloodier” saints to give it a more adult vibe. You could dress up as St. Stephen, complete with arrows, or as St. Lucy, with fake eyes in a cup.
Go to Church
Catholics can attend Mass for the Vigil of All Saints’ and it will count toward the obligation. (Yes, All Saints’ Day is a Holy Day of Obligation, while All Souls’ is not.) Some Protestants go to their worship centers to pray for the souls of people celebrating the pagan holiday of Halloween. We, though, can go to Mass to fully celebrate what is really our holiday. And Mass won’t last that long (or shouldn’t), so you can still get in some trick-or-treating afterwards.
Attend a Carnival or Fall Festival
Your local parish may be hosting a Halloween Carnival or Fall Festival. Go to it! Play games, eat too much candy, and talk about your patron saint. Have fun. In most first world countries, we’re divorced from the idea of thanking God for a successful harvest. But that doesn’t mean we can’t still celebrate that, or celebrate the fact that we have brothers and sisters in Heaven who are looking out for us.
Go to a Cemetery
Though All Saints’ is about the saints in Heaven, we can still pause to pray for the souls in Purgatory. After all, their holy day is the day after, on November 2nd. Though indulgences cannot be obtained until the start of November, there’s no reason you can’t get stop at a cemetery to pray while on your way to Mass or a party.
This is Our Holiday
Don’t believe the pagans or Protestants. Halloween is our holiday. Don’t accept the commercialism and don’t be satisfied with the horror movie marathon on cable television. Celebrate our family in Heaven and remember those souls in Purgatory who are in desperate need of our prayers.