A Reflection on Celebrating Halloween

by Beatrice Freccia

As summer draws to a close in the United States, the arrival of autumn is heralded by the appearance of Halloween merchandise and decorations. American enthusiasm for Halloween is tremendous, and its observance seems near-universal. (In recent years, Halloween spending in the United States has hovered in the $7-8 billion dollar range.) Confronted with the typically American display of excess in his neighborhood and while shopping, the traditional Catholic might well find himself rolling his eyes at the garish materialism. (Why waste money on a 6’ high inflatable pumpkin for the front lawn? Why buy pounds of candy for the already wound up neighborhood children?) Or perhaps he has graver concerns about Halloween—perhaps he associates it with paganism, Satanism, and the occult, and believes it to be spiritually dangerous territory. Is Halloween an inherently dangerous holiday, from which the devout Catholic should shield his children?

A Personal Reflection

I was raised in a Catholic family, and I have wonderful childhood memories of celebrating Halloween with my younger siblings and other neighborhood children. We would spend months before Halloween considering and planning our costumes, which my parents often made for us. We would pick out pumpkins at the pumpkin patch and sketch different designs for carving them, before settling on the best option. And finally, on Halloween night, we would don our costumes and disguise ourselves as animals, as historical figures, in international costumes, or as characters from books or movies. We hosted a neighborhood Halloween party, played old-fashioned games, and at the end of the evening trick-or-treated together. The emphasis was entirely on autumn, dressing up, eating sweets, and the excitement of being out after dark. We had no interest in the occult or paganism; in fact, we wanted to give anything of that nature a wide berth. The costumes and decorations at our party—which my mother held to carry on her own fondly remembered Halloween traditions—were never gory or gruesome. If there was the faintest hint of a spooky feeling as we wove our way through the neighborhood in the dark, it came only from that natural human fear of the night, the unknown, and the (very real) supernatural.

I am inclined to think that Halloween is, for the overwhelming majority of those who celebrate it with young children, a wholly innocent occasion for merriment and revelry. When I became a mother myself, I found myself more interested in the relationship between Halloween, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day. And I was surprised to find that modern Halloween traditions, even those that appear wholly secular, have more to do with Christianity than with paganism.

History of Halloween

The term Halloween (from Hallowe’en, or All Hallows’ Eve), which dates back to the 18th century, indicates simply that the celebration is the vigil of the Feast of All Hallows, or All Saints’ Day. Halloween is popularly believed to be the modern descendant of an ancient Celtic festival called Samhain (meaning “Summer’s End”), which was observed in Ireland and Scotland on October 31-November 1, and marked the beginning of winter. (Similar festivals were held in Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany.) Very little is known about how Samhain was celebrated. There are no contemporary written records; nothing was written about Samhain until the tenth century, well after the Christianization of Ireland, which began in the fifth century. What was written down was transcribed by Catholic monks and based on surviving Celtic sagas, which were an oral tradition. What we know is that Samhain was the time when cattle were brought down from the summer pastures and slaughtered for the winter (presumably because the weather was now cold enough that the meat would not spoil quickly), and bonfires were lit. There has been much modern speculation (from the eighteenth century onwards) about the purpose and significance of these bonfires, and what religious ceremonies were involved in marking the change of the seasons. But there does not appear to be reliable evidence that Samhain was specifically a religious holiday; if there were religious ceremonies held on the feast, we do not know what they were.

Sir James Frazer, a nineteenth century Scottish anthropologist and an expert on myth and religion, is largely responsible for the belief that Samhain was the pagan Celtic festival of the dead. Frazer’s monumental work of mythological anthropology, The Golden Bough, popularized this unfounded assumption by arguing that since the Catholic Church had “baptized” pagan traditions for other holidays (perfectly true), the proximity of Samhain to All Saints’ and All Souls’ meant that Samhain was the forebear of Halloween. This has since become accepted as fact.

In fact, though the early Christians always took an interest in honoring their holy dead, it wasn’t until the early seventh century that Pope Boniface consecrated the Pantheon in honor of the Virgin and Holy Martyrs, and ordered that the anniversary of the consecration was to be commemorated on May 13. (This date may actually have been chosen as part of a conscious effort by that pontiff to supplant a Roman holiday called Lemuralia, which was a day set aside for placating the malevolent restless dead.) In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III founded an oratory “of the holy apostles and of all saints, martyrs and confessors, of all the just made perfect who are at rest throughout the world,” and the date of the feast was set as November 1. In 835 Gregory IV made it a feast of the universal church, and the May feast was suppressed. Both of these feasts arose in Rome, and there is no indication that either of them had anything to do with ancient Celtic fall festivals.

Throughout the Church’s first millennium, European churches set aside various dates to pray for the repose of the souls of the dead (as distinct from the veneration of the saints). It was St. Odilo of Cluny, an eleventh century Benedictine abbot, who chose November 2 as a day to pray particularly for the poor souls languishing in Purgatory, barred from the Beatific Vision. This observance spread to other Benedictine monasteries and then to the Church as a whole. With All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day falling on consecutive days, there was now a triduum: Allhallowtide.

This triduum, of All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day, highlights an aspect of Church teaching which has come to be ignored by many Catholics and reviled by Protestants. The Church—the Body of Christ—is often thought to be merely the faithful on earth, but in fact, She is divided into three parts: the Church Militant, the Church Suffering, and the Church Triumphant. The Church Militant are those faithful still on earth; the Church Suffering, those in Purgatory, atoning for their sins; and the Church Triumphant, the blessed in Heaven, enjoying the glory of the Beatific Vision. The interconnectedness of these three groups is a beautiful teaching of the Church: those on earth pray for the souls in Purgatory, and can ease their suffering and speed their journey to Heaven by their sacrifices and prayers (especially the Mass). At the same time, the faithful on earth ask for the intercession of the Saints in Heaven, who delight in aiding us in our struggles. Allhallowtide presents an important opportunity for contemplating the relationship between these three parts.

Revelry and Solemnity

The Medievals, in developing customs around this triduum, combined revelry with solemnity in their unique way, and gave special attention to Purgatory and the reality of evil. Many of these customs, later brought to the United States by immigrants, are “ancestors” to our modern Halloween traditions. In Britain and Ireland, “soul cakes” were baked and given to “soulers” who went door-to-door, offering prayers for the dead in exchange for the cakes. (In other parts of Europe, similar customs arose, like baking breads which were left out as symbolic offerings for the restless souls in Purgatory.) Candles and bonfires were lit to guide wayward souls on their journey to Heaven, or to ward off the devil. “Mumming” and “guising,” a medieval British tradition where costumed revelers went door to door putting on plays, was another precursor to trick-or-treating. Beginning in the nineteenth century, the soulers and guisers often carried carved, illuminated turnips or other vegetables (“jack-o-lanterns”), to frighten their benefactors and hosts, or to ward off the devil. Folk tales and superstitions arose, too, many of them involving personifications of death and ghosts, which stemmed from the focus on Purgatory. Medieval Europeans on the continent (especially in France), popularized the allegory of the danse macabre, which became an important motif in church decoration. This churchyard “dance,” with a personified figure of death, united all men, whatever their station; it represented a memento mori which later was sometimes associated with Halloween, and influenced the spooky imagery of modern Halloween.

With the advent of the Protestant Reformation, the Feast of All Souls was in many places suppressed or combined (explicitly or essentially) with the Feast of All Saints, since Protestant reformers rejected the doctrine of Purgatory. Their doctrine of “faith alone” makes justification an all-or-nothing proposition: faith alone, in isolation from good works, would suffice to provide a justification that is merely imputed to the believer. The Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, which is intimately linked to the Church’s understanding of justification and sanctifying grace, is inimical to the Protestants’ perverse understanding of faith.

Unsurprisingly, then, for many Protestants Halloween has always been incompatible with their understanding of Christianity.  Indeed, many modern concerns about Halloween can be traced to fundamentalist Protestant Jack Chick’s attacks on the holiday in the 1980s. Chick, who is vehemently anti-Catholic, employed his signature comic book-style “tracts” (often handed out on Halloween in lieu of candy) to try to convince Americans that Halloween was: related to Babylonian mystery cults (and that the Catholic Church was the modern Babylon); that Halloween was when druids would offer children as human sacrifices; and that, perhaps the most laughable of all, Halloween is Satan’s birthday. He also preyed on parents’ fears about candy being tampered with, although this concern (which was widespread at the time) was later completely debunked.

Keeping the Spirit of the Feast

Oddly enough, some modern pagans and Satanists (whose “beliefs” have nothing to do with ancient Celtic religions, and date back merely to the 19th century) have in recent years taken a great interest in Halloween, perhaps because of the efforts of people like Jack Chick. And, it is true that American Halloween has lately come to involve, for some, a fascination with the ghoulish and the gory. (Perhaps this also has to do with the Protestant backlash against Halloween.) Modern man is as fascinated by death as the ancients were—death is a mystery, and man instinctively recognizes the immortality of the soul and wonders about what happens when the soul separates from the body. But sadly, with the loss of his Christian heritage, modern man’s interest in death has become misdirected to things like horror films, true crime books, and TV specials, which focus on the grotesque bodily aspects of violent death but fail to provide satisfactory answers about the reality of the supernatural.

These recent unsavory tendencies in a small minority do not mean there’s anything inherently wrong with the holiday as innocently celebrated by millions of Americans. Catholics who are serious about religious observance needn’t think of Halloween as a replacement for, or an alternative to, devout observance of All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day. On the contrary, for devout Catholics, its traditions, when closely examined, can serve as a prelude to the All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day and be a reminder of man’s immortality and our pious duties towards the departed. Yes, the secular culture has become increasingly enthusiastic about Halloween in recent decades (and about the merchandising opportunities it provides); it has largely forgotten about the two great solemn feasts it anticipates. But there is no reason the traditional Catholic family shouldn’t be able to observe Allhallowtide in its entirety. The key is not to let the vigil celebration of Halloween grow disproportionately important and overwhelm the two feasts.

Have lighthearted fun on Halloween, and enjoy simple pleasures like carving pumpkins with your family and trick-or-treating in costume with your neighbors. Talk to your children about Halloween traditions and how many of them are Christian in origin. Show them that in the spooky or eerie are opportunities to contemplate their own mortality, just as they were for Medieval Christians, but that contemplation should be tempered with the hope of salvation and resolve against evil. Then attend Mass on All Saint’s Day (and perhaps an All Saint’s Day party as well), and attend Mass again on All Soul’s Day, followed by a visit to the cemetery. Ask for the intercession of the saints, pray for the repose of the souls of the dead, and marvel at how man continues to combine the playful and the solemn, as he has always done.

Beatrice Freccia is the pen name of a traditional Catholic mother of three living with her husband outside of Washington, D.C. Her previous work includes an examination of Aristotle’s account of the household for The Josias.