It’s that time of year again: Halloween, one of those holidays that you either love or really can’t stand. As a kid, I was all over it; as an adult, it’s a much different story. I could easily come up with a dozen different things I don’t like about it. But my biggest objection, by and large, is that the way it’s celebrated now, it all seems so pointless. Why do we bother spending so much time and money on a holiday that’s become synonymous with costumes, candy, and scaring the wits out of kids? Yet if we look at the customs and traditions – the real history of Halloween – we will find that its “true substance… is firmly rooted in the Church.”1
We’ve all heard about the supposed origins of Halloween: how the pagan Druids – the ancient Celtic tribes of Scotland, Ireland and Wales – celebrated the beginning of winter each year with a festival where they would wear masks and light bonfires. The idea was to scare away the evil spirits that they believed roamed the earth during this time.2 Now some would like to suggest that we just picked up where the pagans left off, adopting their practices, while adding more sinister elements over time.
Fast-forward to modern times and you’ll get another, equally bad image of Halloween. Modern-day “pagans” of every variety and persuasion have helped perpetuate the idea that it’s anti-Christian, focusing on the darker aspects of our world and glamorizing evil. If Halloween is seen as nothing more than “the witches’ Sabbath,” no wonder so many parents object.3
So, what’s the real story?
To begin with, we’ve got the name all wrong. It’s not “Halloween,” but rather “Hallowe’en” for All Hallows’ Eve, the evening that falls before All Saint’s Day. Hallowed, of course, means “holy,” though we rarely associate our modern holiday with holiness. The feast was established as a time to “venerate the merits of all the Saints [in] one celebration” since there weren’t enough days in the year to commemorate each saint or martyr individually.4 Sometime during the 8th century, Pope Gregory III moved the Feast of All Saints to November 1st, and as with many feasts, it was often celebrated with great… well, festivity. This idea may seem a little foreign to those of us in North America, who have come to see a holy day of obligation as “spending 45 minutes in church for Mass and then going back to work.”5 Yet, from medieval times, Holy Days were times of great celebration, a party… precisely where the name “holiday” comes from!
What a stroke of genius! How very wise of the Church to align All Saints Day with a festival that was already well known and celebrated in the general population. It’s one of the best ways to “meet people where they are” – to take something with which they are already comfortable and familiar and infuse it with Christian meaning. Yet as Fr. Steve Grunow describes, “The end result was not simply that a veneer of Christianity was placed on top of an ancient pagan ethos… a new cultural mix was created, one that was Christian to its core.”6
All was fine and well until the 1500’s and the Protestant Reformation. As Fr. Steve explains, “Protestant reformers were concerned about the practices of medieval Christianity that to them seemed contrary to what they believed the Church should be.”7 In order to distance themselves from anything Catholic and establish their own identity, Protestants rejected many forms of Catholic piety – observances and holy days alike. When Irish Catholics later began settling in the New World, they brought their Catholic customs with them, much to the chagrin of their new Puritan neighbours. The Protestants, worried about Catholic practices encroaching on their new-found independence, objected to celebrating the holiday and declared it “pagan.” Thus, in truth, it seems the bad rap on Hallowe’en has more to do with “protesters” than with pagans.
There’s a bit more to the story than that, but you get the idea. Hallowe’en is a decidedly Catholic holiday, and to reclaim it will take some work on our part. What can we do? In our families, we should make a point to honour not only the vigil (October 31), but also the two feasts that follow, All Saints’ (November 1) and All Souls’ (November 2). By learning more about our Catholic faith – what we believe about things like death and dying, the place of evil in the world, the existence of hell, and the eternal soul – we can help dispel many false ideas. Unlike the ancient pagans, we don’t believe that “tormented” souls roam the earth trying to interact with us. There are “no wayward spirits somehow trapped between heaven and earth or souls needing to accomplish unfinished business.”8 Holy Days will begin to take on new meaning if we treat them as such – a celebration of our Lord’s victory over evil and death. We may be surrounded by a culture of death, but we know the truth: Jesus conquered the grave.
This is also a great opportunity to talk about the interconnectedness of all humanity, what we call the “communion of saints.” We ask the saints, those “more closely united to Christ…who dwell in heaven” to intercede for us, and their prayers are most efficacious.9 But in a very real sense, the dead can help us, too. For when we pray for their souls we also draw closer to God. And what about trick-or-treating? Well, perhaps we can apply a lesson here as well about the two choices or paths that lie ahead of us. We can be fooled by the lies and deception of the devil, his many “tricks” and traps, or we can believe in the message of our Lord, Jesus Christ and receive the reward of eternal life.
As with so much in life, the meaning behind our rituals and traditions can become lost over time; we can forget why we do what we do. On the one hand, Hallowe’en has become so very commercialized – an over 7 billion dollar industry in the U.S. alone10 – while those interested in the occult, Satanism, Wicca, and other forms of Black Magic have likewise used it to gain attention and promote their own agendas. The only way to combat these realities is to rediscover what made it holy in the first place, to find the true meaning behind All Hallow’s Eve.
– Kelley Holy
1 Fr. Steven Grunow, “It’s Time for Catholics to Embrace Halloween,” Word on Fire [weblog]; available from
http://www.wordonfire.org/resources/blog/its-time-for-catholics-to-embrace-halloween/2133/; Internet; accessed 28 October 2014
2 Susan Hines-Brigger, “Halloween and its Christian roots,” St. Anthony Messenger; American Catholic [online magazine]; available from http://www.americancatholic.org/messenger/oct2001/family.asp; Internet; accessed 22 October 2014.
3 Susan E. Richardson, Holidays & Holy Days: Origins, Customs and Insights on Celebrations Through the Year (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Servant Publications, 2001), 100.
4 From the prayer of the Holy Mass for All Saint’s Day.
5 Fr. Steven Grunow, “It’s Time for Catholics to Embrace Halloween.”
8 From a conversation with Fr. Nathan Siray, priest for the Diocese of Calgary and one of the main contributors to Swords of Truth.
9 CCC, 956.
10 Statistics available from the National Retail Federation, “Halloween Headquarters,” available from https://nrf.com/resources/halloween-headquarters; Internet; accessed 29 October 2014.