Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Be not afraid: The surprisingly holy origins of Halloween

In case you didn’t realize it, today is Halloween. For those of you who have been taught to find nothing redeemable in this night of masks, merriment and candy-begging: calm down!

Here in the Deep South, Evangelicalism has a strong sway. Because of this, there are mixed emotions about Halloween – even among some Catholics. Yes, it’s a night set apart for children to dress up in costumes and innocently go door-to-door asking for candy – no harm in that, right? But then there are the persistent (and often convincing) tales, often perpetuated by well-meaning Christians, which link any celebration (or even recognition) of Halloween to an alignment with evil and even satanic activity.

This has gone so far, that in the past decades, many evangelical churches have employed all sorts of “replacement tactics” to combat the draw of “evil” Halloween. They’ve done this by sponsoring (and pressuring others – like schools – to sponsor) “religiously safe” alternatives to Halloween

In the past 20 years or so, “Fall Festivals” – for example – have replaced “Halloween Carnivals.” In some evangelical churches around this time of year, the “evils” of Halloween are often preached from the pulpits and families are provided with church-sponsored activities to discourage them (and their children) from celebrating Halloween.

Typical scene of heaven in a "Judgement House"

My personal favorite example of church-sponsored replacement tactics for Halloween were the “Judgment Houses” which seemed to spring up in communities large and small during the 1990s. They were meant to replace “Haunted Houses” with a series of dramatic (and often poorly acted) vignettes which usually told a predictable story of a group of teenagers who died unexpectedly (usually in a car crash), and were suddenly faced with the reality of being judged by God.

The point was to scare you out of a Godless existence (which one presumes would include celebrating Halloween) and into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Certainly well meaning in intent, but I often found them to be full of the emotional entrapment that is a big turn-off for the primary audience: non-Christians. Plus, no amount of “special effects” (read foil, fog machines, and special lighting) can produce a believable sense of heaven or hell, and ends up making a mockery of both. Once again, completely turning off non-Christians. But I digress.

Well, fear not! It turns out that, despite the sermon your aunt has forwarded you 10 times, Halloween is not evil and its roots are neither pagan nor satanic. In fact, the origins of this holiday are not pagan or devilish; they’re downright holy.

Yes. Seriously.

Hallow = Holy

Let’s start with the name. Essentially, the name “Halloween” is a Scottish contraction of the words “Hallows’ Evening,” which was the old-fashioned English name for the night of October 31. Over time, the name evolved into the name we now call it. Sort of like this:

Hallows’ Evening  -> Hallows’ E’en -> Hallowe’en -> Halloween

Hallow means holy. As in the Lord’s Prayer, when we pray: “…hallowed be Thy name.” We’re really praising God here, saying, “…holy is Your name.”

So, there is absolutely nothing evil about the name “Halloween.” Period.

“For all the saints…”

Halloween is intimately connected to the day that follows it: November 1 – All Saints’ Day. It is the “evening” before the day on which the Church commemorates all of those Christians who have already entered into heaven: the saints (or, in the older language, the “hallows”).

Long ago, the Church began marking the “heavenly birthdays” of those who were martyred for the Faith – recording the date of their martyrdom on the official calendar of the Church and commemorating that day each year. This commemoration would include a special Mass in thanksgiving to God for the martyr’s Christian witness and it asked for the saint’s intercessory prayers before God’s heavenly throne.

Eventually, the persecutions of the Church became so intense and the number of the martyrs so prolific, that it became obvious that there would not be enough days in the year to celebrate every martyr individually. It was also realized that there were countless martyrs whose names, for one reason or another, were unable to be recorded and were known to God alone. Therefore, local churches began to set apart a day on their calendar to honor all of the Christians martyrs - those well-known as well as those known but to God alone.

In the Christian East, these commemorations can be traced back to at least the fourth century. By that time, we know that the Church in the city of Edessa (in present-day Turkey) had already set aside one day in the year to honor all of the Christian martyrs. That date was May 13. In the year 359, St. Ephrem composed a hymn honoring “All Martyrs.”

In the city of Antioch (also in present-day Turkey) around the same time, the Church there also kept an annual memorial of all holy martyrs on the first Sunday after Pentecost each year. We still have sermons that St. John Chrysostom preached for some of these commemorations in that city.

In the Christian West, the feast day honoring “All Holy Martyrs” was introduced in the year 609. That year, the Roman Emperor Phocas gave the Pantheon (one of Rome’s oldest and most important pagan temples) to Pope Boniface IV. On May 13 of that same year, Pope Boniface rededicated the Pantheon as a church honoring “St. Maria ad Martyres,” or “Holy Mary and All the Martyrs.” That day – May 13 – was then added to the Roman Church calendar, marking the dedication of the church of “All Martyrs.”

All Martyrs to All Saints

In the year 732, Pope St. Gregory III held a synod of all the clergy in Rome. That synod issued a decree that established – within the Church of Rome – a new commemoration of “all the apostles, martyrs, confessors, and all the just and perfect servants of God whose bodies rest throughout the whole world.” The pope established an oratory (i.e. prayer chapel) within the old Basilica of St. Peter, dedicated to All Saints on November 1. A fragment of a marble slab, which quotes the original decree of the synod, commissioned by Pope Gregory III himself, is still visible in the grottoes beneath St. Peter’s Basilica.

So, for a while, the Roman Church calendar included both a feast day for All Martyrs (May 13) as well as for All Saints (November 1). The May 13 feast (of All Martyrs) was, in practice, much more popular, though – drawing many pilgrims to the city during the second week in May. But, in reality, the two feast days overlapped in theological emphasis.

The hordes of pilgrims that flooded Rome each May to celebrate the dedication of the Pantheon (All Martyrs) became an unmanageable burden to the city and there often was not enough food to feed the tens of thousands of pilgrims. In response, during the ninth century, Pope Gregory IV made the very practical decision to remove the emphasis traditionally placed on the dedication feast of the church of All Martyrs, and transferred the solemnity to the Feast of All Saints on November 1.

Why was November 1 seen to be a preferable time to accommodate vast crowds of pilgrims? It falls just after the fall harvest, a time when pilgrims could be fed much more easily than in the spring.

All Saints spreads across Europe: Sorry - still no satanic influence

The Feast of All Saints on November 1 began to spread throughout the Western Church. St. Bede (d. 735), the first historian of the Church in England, recorded that the Church there was already marking November 1 as “Hallowmas” (i.e. All Saints’ Day) in the early 700s. At the request of Pope Gregory IV, Emperor Louis the Pious (d. 840), introduced the November 1 Feast of All Saints in the Church within his territories.

So, the November 1 feast day for All Saints was being celebrated throughout the Western Church by the ninth century. And, to reiterate, the day was focused solely on commemorating those holy souls (i.e. saints) who are now in God’s presence in heaven.  Nuttin’ evil atall.

Trick-or-Treaing? More Catholic than you realize!

The practice of going door-to-door, begging for treats dates back to the Middle Ages in the British Isles.  It began as a practice called “souling.” On all Saints’ Day, pious families would bake small, round cakes, usually made with ginger or nutmeg and topped with a cross.

Modern example of "soul cakes"
These “soul cakes” were given out to “soulers” – usually children and the poor – who went from house to house to get them. For each soul cake they received, the soulers would promise to pray for a soul in purgatory. Thus, the origin of trick-or-treating revolved around praying for the souls of the dead.

Eventually, the practice of souling and of praying for the souls of deceased family members and friends led to the establishment of a brand new feast day on the Church calendar: “All Souls’ Day” on November 2. This became the day set apart to remember and pray for the souls of all the faithful departed.

All in all, the origins of Halloween – the evening before All Saints Day - are anything but devilish. Remember that there is an important difference of feasts over the next couple of days. All Saints’ Day is for us to ask for the prayers of those already in heaven. All Souls’ Day is for us to pray for the souls of our friends and family members who have died, so that they may be welcomed into heaven. 

(From the SFC Archives. Originally posted 10/31/2011)