“Trick or treat!”
For Americans and many others around the world, these three words have become synonymous with the celebration of Halloween. And what’s not to love about Halloween? Kids get to dress up as their favorite superhero or movie character and trudge through the neighborhood, getting free candy from anybody who they’ll utter these three words to.
Unlike Christmas, Thanksgiving and even Easter, Halloween is a holiday which, at surface level, has virtually no discernible meaning beyond the actions described above. At the very least, it’s an excuse to throw a big party, replete with questionable adult beverages and even more questionable costumes.
However, look beneath the surface, and what do you find? For those who know their history, it should come as no surprise that the modern-day observance of Halloween contains remnants of a deeply Catholic celebration that demands to be rekindled in this new apostolic age.
First, the name: Most calendars show Oct. 31 as All Hallows’ Eve. Breaking down the etymology, “hallow” means “holy,” and the suffix “een” is derived from “e’en,” a shortening of the word “evening”; put them together, and you get Halloween.
Halloween precedes the celebration of All Saints Day on Nov. 1, and on the Church’s liturgical calendar, All Hallows’ Eve is observed as a vigil celebration, much like Christmas Eve or the Easter Vigil. All Saints’ Day is also sometimes called All Hallows’ Day, and it has been a major feast day in the Church since the 800s; it’s also normally a Holy Day of Obligation (but not this year!).
The date became officially recognized by the universal Church in the eighth century when Pope Gregory III transferred the feast from May 13 to Nov. 1 to coincide with the foundation of a new chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica which was dedicated to the saints.
Do a quick Google search and you’ll find reasonable arguments that Halloween and All Saints’ Day was instituted to counter the pagan festival of Samhain, which took place around the same date and marked an end to the summer harvest. However, other historical records show that Christian festivals celebrating the lives of the saints already existed in certain parts of Europe on Nov. 1, pointing to a mere coincidence that the two celebrations fall on the same day.
So which is it? Looking at the familiar traditions associated with the modern-day celebration of Halloween, it becomes the more likely case that Samhain wasn’t Christianized, but rather that All Hallows’ Eve was paganized over the centuries.
During the All Hallows’ Eve festivities, children would often dress up as their favorite saints as a way to commemorate those who had gone before them in faith. The focus on death and mortality amidst the celebration is not intended to be rooted in the horror and shock value that’s become commonplace on Halloween; quite the contrary, in fact. The Church recognizes the month of November as a time to reflect upon death, and it’s no coincidence that we kick off the month by honoring the saints — those who lived a life for love of God and died knowing that the end of this life is not the final destination.
The Christian observation of Halloween offers a hope that the pagan observation cannot, as we know that death does not have the final say — with the Cross, death has lost its sting, and as such, fear has no place in our hearts.
Another tradition associated with All Hallows’ Eve and the subsequent All Souls’ Day on Nov. 2 is praying for and honoring the dead, an act which itself is a corporal work of mercy. It’s an occasion to visit those who have gone before us at their final resting place and light candles in their honor, the flame symbolizing the eternal light of holy remembrance.
The concept of memento mori also plays a role as we, too, are called to remember that our lives on earth are finite and that we ought to spend our days here living well, loving God and loving our neighbors, as we prepare our souls for a seat at the heavenly banquet.
Even trick-or-treating, or at least what the practice as it’s known now is derived from, has roots in Catholic traditions. The English would make “soul cakes” for the occasion of All Saints’ Day, and children would go door-to-door begging for the cakes. In exchange for the tasty treats, children would offer prayers for the souls of the departed loved ones of those who gave them out.
Christian families are often hesitant to celebrate Halloween, but they should only be hesitant to celebrate the secularized version of it. The remnants that remain of the Christian Halloween — Halloween as the solemn vigil for All Saints’ Day — present an opportunity for evangelization. That doesn’t mean your child can’t dress up like Spider Man, but perhaps it means that you teach your child about the history of the holiday and ask if they’d like to instead dress up as a saint.
It may seem weird and yes, even a bit spooky to those neighbors who ask, “What are you supposed to be?” and are met with a response like, “The Christian martyr St. Joan of Arc, who was burned alive at the stake,” but it is just one creative way of many that Catholics can help make Halloween Catholic again.