October 25, 2020: The Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time - Pastor’s Corner
Happy Halloween! This coming Saturday is Halloween and, perhaps because it is on a weekend this year, I’ve been getting questions about Halloween which go beyond simply practical pandemic logistics around trick-or-treating. For example, “Can Catholics celebrate this pagan holiday?” or “Should we letting our children dress up as witches, goblins?” Since it has grown in popularity, this week, I want to examine Halloween’s historical origins and how we might celebrate it.
Surprisingly, the origins of Halloween are rooted in Catholic piety the initiative of a medieval Pope. If you do a quick internet search of the origins of Halloween you will find many claims that the source of Halloween is the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, the god of the dead. Since the Celts celebrated October 31 as New Year’s Eve, it was a day to consider the mystery of death and including many rituals around placating evil spirits (including human sacrifice). When the Romans conquered Gaul (France) and Britain (excluding Ireland and Scotland!) in the century before and after Christ, this bloody pagan festival receded in practice and itself was dead by the second century. To claim that the Celtic festival of Samhain is the source of Halloween is akin to asserting the ancient Aztec ballgame is the precursor to American basketball simply because the sport is played on a court with the goal of putting a rubber ball through a rock or metal hoop. Our own noted historian Fr. Augustine Thompson, OP has written a wonderful article based on his thorough historical research, which I encourage you to read at www.ucatholic.com/blog/the-catholic-origins-of-halloween.
Halloween finds its proximate origins in the Catholic celebration of the saints. (The old English word “hallowed” means “holy,” i.e., the Our Father says “Hallowed be thy name”) During the age of martyrs when the Church was persecuted, the Mass would be celebrated in catacombs and other cemeteries surrounded by relics of those who had, like Christ, given their lives for the faith. As the Church and the number of its martyrs and hallowed grew, it became impossible to commemorate all of them. So a common feast remembering all the saints and martyrs was established in various places during the third and fourth century. In 609, Pope Boniface IV dedicated the ancient Roman Pantheon as a Temple of the Mary and the Martyrs and in 731 Pope Gregory III established the feast of All Saints [Hallows] Day at St. Peter’s in Rome on November 1. With November 1 established as a day to remember the saints, the next day gradually became a time to remember those souls who continued their journey to glory. In 998, St. Odilo, the abbot of the French monastery of Cluny, popularized November 2 as day of prayer for the souls of all the faithful departed and soon, this devotion spread to the entire Church.
As with all significant feast days, the Vigil or Eve can develop its own traditions as well. For example, Vigil Eve Masses at Christmas and Easter have their own particular themes and prayers. As All Saints [Hallows] Day grew in popularity, the feast’s evening vigil, “All Hallows Even,” or “Hallowe’en” also developed its own local traditions, which immigrants brought to the United States. For example, in various cultures in Europe there was a practice of “souling” and baking “soul cakes” in honor of the faithful departed. These cakes were baked on All Hallows’ Eve and children would go out on All Saints Day and All Souls Day, begging door-to-door for these cakes in exchange for praying for deceased relatives and friends. It is believed that in some places there was a tradition of wearing disguises while souling that represented the various souls in purgatory who were seeking these prayers. And of course, the processional candles were carried sheltered from the wind in hollowed-out gourds or turnips, called Jack O’Lanterns. Again, in France, the faithful created a dance macabre or “dance of the dead” that consisted of a representation of Death (typically a skeleton) leading a chain of individuals to the afterlife. This was popularized during the Black Death which decimated more than a third of the European population. The scene would often be brought to life on All Souls Day, where actors would put on costumes representing the different people in the chain.
All of these different traditions revolving around All Saints and All Souls were mixed together in the United States when immigrants started to intermarry and combine customs. The celebration of Halloween spread throughout the country during the early 20th century and quickly became a community activity. Businesses then recognized the profitability of the holiday and started to promote it in their advertisements, taking over the day in a similar way to the celebration of Christmas. Today the emphasis on parties and trick-or-treating might not seem to have Christian significance, in fact, they have deep Catholic roots and are meant to remind us of our own mortality and the need to pray for those who have gone before us. May Halloween not only (slightly) increase our sugar intake, but be a moment when we taste the sweetness of God’s grace through our Souls and Saints!
~ Fr. Michael