The Catholic origins of Halloween

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By Father Ángel Pérez-López, PhD, STL

The word “Halloween” is a contraction of the expression “all hallows’ eve” or “all saints’ eve.” It is a deeply Catholic holiday. We must rediscover it. Let us not fall into the fundamentalism that opposes it without reservation, nor in the trap of secular commercialization, which diverts this festival from its religious origins and creates a neopagan meaning.

The Celtic culture had a celebration called Samhain, which means “end of summer.” They would celebrate the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter, when many people died of cold. However, the Catholic origins of Halloween date back to more than 1300 years ago during the vigil of the Feast of All Saints. It was instituted by Pope Gregory III when, in the eighth century, he dedicated a chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica to all the saints. A century later, Pope Gregory IV declared this celebration a holy day of obligation. In addition, he adopted the tradition of Germanic Catholics and changed the date from May to November. Thus, the vigil of this feast shifted to the last day of October, our current Halloween day. None of these popes seemed to know about the Samhain, which ceased when the Celtics converted to Catholicism, even before the Feast of All Saints was instituted.

Now, is it possible that some of these elements from the Celtic feast are still alive today? Of course! The Christmas tree also survived! The tradition of the Christmas tree has Germanic origins and we have adopted it in Catholicism without its pagan origins making it morally bad.

In the United States, the Puritans banned and opposed Halloween radically and without hesitation. Meanwhile, Catholic migrants from Germany and Ireland kept the tradition alive merging some elements of this holiday with the Feast of All Souls. Therefore, people made cakes on Halloween day and children would go from house to house “begging” for these cakes in exchange of prayers for the benefactors’ loved ones and deceased family members.

Historically, the Puritan and Protestant attitude against Halloween was mixed with anti-Catholic feelings in our country. Only the commercialization of the holiday managed to solve this persecutory trend. This commercialization brought about a phenomenon similar to that of Christmas. In the case of Halloween, it meant forgetting God and the saints as the center of the feast. This loss of religious sense was reinforced by the extensive number of horror films that fantasize and attempt to fill it with neopagan, gloomy, and hidden content.

As Catholics, we cannot fall into the mistake of fundamentalists and despise an explicitly Catholic tradition, simply because its commercialization has emptied it of its true content and transformed it into a possible occasion for the dark and gloomy in this neopaganism. We did not reject Christmas, but we fight to keep its true meaning alive. Let’s do the same with Halloween. It is not a celebration of the devil. We don’t have to Christianize or change the name of a celebration that is already, in itself, Catholic. Therefore, Halloween can be celebrated, keeping in mind its origins and avoiding wrongs, such as superstition, witchcraft or the glorification of evil.

Superstition is an excess and perversion of religion (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2110) from which we must purify the feast we have been explaining. For example, some Irish migrants endowed Halloween with superstitious content contrary to the faith by merging it with a celebration they invented: “the day of all the damned.” They feared that something bad would happen to them if they didn’t celebrate the damned because these souls would feel excluded. A Catholic Halloween without fundamentalisms cannot fall into a mistake like this; and, as we know, our society is not immune to the problem of superstition. At times, we also fall into this error when we attribute “an importance in some way magical to certain practices otherwise lawful or necessary” (CCC 2111).

A Catholic Halloween cannot promote witchcraft either. There is no such thing as good and bad magic. All magic is an attack against God, it entails a rebellion against him and an attempt to replace him: “All practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one’s service and have a supernatural power over others — even if this were for the sake of restoring their health — are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion” (CCC 2117).

Let’s celebrate Halloween without forgetting God and the saints. Parents are the ones who must make concrete decisions on how to educate their children according to the circumstances in their neighborhood. Nonetheless, as long as superstition, witchcraft or the glorification of evil are avoided, the act of a child dressing up and asking for candy, in my opinion, does not necessarily entail, in itself, a moral evil. Let’s not fall into superstition. Let’s not attribute a magical importance to a legitimate practice. We can take advantage of this celebration to teach our children how to celebrate it without fundamentalisms and in a Catholic manner, while they have fun, without sinning and without falling into neopaganism.

COMING UP: Why did the Wall fall, 30 years ago?

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November 9 marked the 30th anniversary of the peaceful breach of the Berlin Wall — the symbolic high point of the Revolution of 1989, which would be completed seven weeks later by the fall of the Czechoslovak communist regime and Vaclav Havel’s election as that country’s president. A few days before the actual anniversary, German foreign minister Haiko Maas penned a brief essay on the reasons why the Wall came down, which was striking for what Mr. Mass didn’t mention.

He did not mention NATO steadfastness against a vast Soviet campaign of agitation and propaganda over western military modernization in the 1980s.

He did not mention President Ronald Reagan or Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher — he didn’t even mention West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

From my point of view, however, the most glaring omission in Mr. Maas’s essay was his complete lack of attention to the pivotal figure in the Revolution of 1989, Pope St. John Paul II. Just as oddly, the foreign minister neglected to mention the moral revolution — the revolution of conscience — that John Paul II helped ignite and that gave the Revolution of 1989 its unique human texture. This is bad history. And bad history always raises warning flags about the future.

Professor John Lewis Gaddis of Yale University is America’s most distinguished historian of the Cold War. He is not a Catholic, so he could not be accused of special pleading or sectarian bias in writing that “when John Paul II kissed the ground at the Warsaw Airport on June 2, 1979, he began the process by which communism in Poland — and ultimately everywhere — would come to an end.” My friendly amendment would be to note (as the Polish pope did) that a lot had been happening in east central Europe before John Paul’s June 1979 pilgrimage to Poland; so the Pope did not so much begin, as he did accelerate, the process of dismantling European communism through an effective nonviolent resistance based on the assertion of basic human rights. And he did that in part by giving the Catholic components of the resistance new courage, rooted in the conviction that “Rome” now had their backs (as it hadn’t in the 1970s).

But I will happily accept Professor Gaddis’s citation of June 2, 1979, as a signal moment in this process. What happened that day? Unbelievably, after more than 30 years of communist repression, a pope from behind the iron curtain celebrated Mass in Warsaw’s Victory Square. And during that hitherto unimaginable event, a vast crowd chanted, “We want God! We want God!”

That dramatic scene was the curtain-raiser on nine days of national renewal in which John Paul, in dozens of speeches and addresses, never mentioned politics or economics once and ignored the Polish communist government completely. Rather, he played numerous variations on one great theme: “You are not who they say you are. Remember who you are — reclaim the truth about yourselves as a nation formed by a Christian history and a vital faith — and you will eventually discover tools of resistance that communism cannot match.” The demand for religious freedom, in other words, was at the center of the John Paul II-inspired Solidarity movement in Poland, even as it became an increasingly prominent part of the human rights resistance to communism in Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, and what was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Getting this history straight is important, not just as a matter of intellectual hygiene but for the future. Public officials who do not grasp the centrality of religious freedom to the collapse of European communism and the emergence of new democracies in central and eastern Europe are unlikely to appreciate the centrality of religious freedom to free and virtuous 21st-century societies and to 21st-century democracy. It is a sadness to note that Foreign Minister Maas is not alone in his ignorance, and in what one fears may be his insouciance about the first freedom.

A few days before the 30th anniversary of the Wall coming down, former Irish president Mary McAleese gave a lecture at Trinity College in Dublin. Did she celebrate her Church’s role in liberating a continent? No. Instead, she made the bizarre claim that infant baptism and the consequent obligation of parents to raise their baptized children in the faith may violate the U.N.’s Covenant on the Rights of the Child.

Hard to believe, but true — and an urgent reminder that bad history makes for bad public policy.

Featured image by Raphaël Thiémard | Wikicommons