Tuesday, October 31, 2023

All Hallows’ Eve

Controversy continues to surround Halloween, with various voices denouncing or defending it as darkly pagan, harmlessly secular, liturgically Catholic, or historically anti-Catholic. And, interestingly, they are all right.

Halloween began as the Celtic festival of Samhain, the Lord of the dead in Celtic mythology. It was believed that on the night before the feast, the gates of the underworld were opened and that ghosts, demons, and witches were allowed to roam freely. In response to this otherworldly menace, the Celts followed the principle “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” and disguised themselves as various kinds of ghouls to escape harm. (From this practice comes our custom of Halloween masquerading). And in addition to blending in with the infernal, the Celts also tried to appease evil spirits by offering them food and wine.

Neopagans celebrating Samhain
The Catholic Takeover
After the Catholic faith came to Celtic lands, the old Druidic festival was associated with the night before All Saints’ Day and was thus called All Hallows’ Eve (a name that gives us the modern appellation of Halloween), even though the institution of All Saints’ Day on November 1 was a complete coincidence. Church officials were gradually able to wean the Celts from their sacrifices, replacing the food offerings to the gods with “soul cakes” that would be made on Halloween and offered to the poor in memory of the faithful departed. This was centuries before the Western Church instituted November 2 as All Souls’ Day, the day commemorating the souls suffering in Purgatory.
The original intention of distributing soul cakes was doubly charitable, ensuring that the poor would be fed on this day, in exchange for which they would pray for the donor’s dead.
Soul Cakes
But eventually, “souling,” as it was called, became more frolicsome as groups of young men and boys began going from house to house and demanding food, money, or ale instead of cakes. The Church, incidentally, also transformed the nature of masquerading during this time from the evasion of evil spirits to the emulation of Christian saints. Large processions in honor of all the saints were held in England and Ireland on the vigil of the feast, with participants either carrying relics or dressing up as angels and saints.
The Irish put an additional spin on the feast with their story about a deceased scamp named Jack. Jack had been kicked out of heaven because he was not good enough and out of hell because he kept playing tricks on the devil. It was thus arranged that Jack would roam the earth with only a lantern to guide him until the Last Judgment, when God would finally decide what to do with him. Hence the ubiquitous Halloween jack-o’-lantern, which in Ireland is made out of the potato and in America out of the more commodious pumpkin.
Jack OLantern Potato
Modern Changes
The Reformation all but eliminated Halloween, since most Protestant ecclesial communities removed the feast of All Saints from their calendar. In England, however, many of the old Catholic customs were transferred to Guy Fawkes Day six days later, the commemoration of a failed plot by several English Catholics to blow up Parliament on November 5, 1605. After the plot was foiled, the British government declared November 5 “a holiday for ever in... detestation of the Papists”, and it was illegal not to celebrate the feast in the United Kingdom until 1959. In the United Sates, the anniversary was known as Pope’s Day, and despite George Washington’s admonitions, it continued to be celebrated in some parts of the country well into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
George Washington: No Pope’s Day!
Of the customs that were transferred, the principal one concerns door-to-door begging. Instead of souling, boys in England and later America would solicit lumps of coal on the night before the holiday in order to burn effigies of Guy Fawkes or the pope (usually, Pope Paul V [1550-1621], who forbade English Catholics from taking the Oath of Allegiance to the Crown). After the Irish emigrated to the United States in the nineteenth century, bringing with them their old Halloween customs, the coal-begging of Guy Fawkes Day gradually elided back into the souling of October 31. It is from this combination of Irish Catholic and British anti-Catholic observances that our modern custom of trick-or-treating has emerged.
Burning an effigy of the Pope on Guy Fawkes Day, LIFE Magazine, 1945
What to Do
Halloween today can be celebrated in any number of ways, from innocent costumes and customs (such as bobbing for apples) to teenage vandalism to truly satanic cultic practices. It is because of this checkered past and present that many traditional Catholics prefer to host more explicitly religious events in addition to Halloween or not to observe the standard American Halloween at all. Adopting the old tradition of All Saints’ masquerading, they host costume parties in which children dress as Saints, and in which games and contests are held and prizes rewarded.
An All Saints’ Party at St. Peter Catholic Student Center in Waco, Texas. Three pirates are in the background. In the foreground are four Saints whose lives were forever changed by pirates. Can you guess who they are? [1]
Others infuse the old Christian meaning back into the holiday. Since it precedes the first class solemnity of All Saints’ Day, October 31 was once a day of fasting and abstinence. One family we know teaches their children to think of trick-or-treating as a kind of harvest gathering for the real holiday of All Saints’, and indeed for the entire first week of November. This not only keeps them from gorging themselves on their sweet plunder in a single night, it yokes their harmless fun to a deeper spiritual meaning. In former ages, All Saints’ Day was celebrated for eight days, and though this octave was removed from the calendar by the time of the 1962 Missal, paraliturgical traditions continue to thrive in connection with All Souls’ Day on November 2. Plenary indulgences, for example, are still offered from November 1 through 8 for visiting a cemetery and praying for the dead, and several Catholic cultures have long had special funereal foods and customs for this week. American Catholics of Western European descent have never had a robust “week of the dead” unlike, say, the Mexican people, and so saving Halloween candy for the saints and the poor souls in purgatory could be a way to fill this void and correct the abuses of Halloween to boot. One thing is certain: if the Church can snatch Halloween away from the Druids, she can take it back from secular America.
[1] From left to right: St. Symeon of Trier, St. Vincent de Paul, St. Flavia (in the scarlet robe), and St. Patrick.

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