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: Ms. Taylor: St. Louis’ fourth grade founder

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The following interview was conducted by the eighth grade class of 2020 at St. Louis Catholic School in Louisville to honor Ms. Lydia Taylor, the school’s beloved fourth grade teacher who is retiring after 20 years of teaching at St. Louis.

Our beloved fourth grade teacher, Ms. Taylor, has been working at St. Louis for over 20 years. As such, she has plenty of experience teaching in a Catholic environment. Since she is retiring this year, the 8th grade class at St. Louis decided to interview her and find out about Ms. Taylor. These are just a few of the many answers we received from her.

What are some things you wish more people understood about teaching in a Catholic School?

“I feel like we address the whole person… and [teach] life skills that can be carried on into their grown-up lives.”

Ms. Taylor feels that in Catholic schools, children receive an education that is applicable in all aspects of life, not just the academic portion. Catholic school teachers help children with social skills and independence among other skills. At public schools, teachers don’t get to know their students on a personal level, unlike Catholic schools. A personal connection with their students allows teachers to educate them on important life matters. Our Catholic faith and morals also allow our teachers to help students without having to worry about offending or insulting them.

What will you miss most about teaching at St. Louis?

“I’m going to miss the students for sure, and I’m actually going to miss the parents. I have had a lot of friendships over the years… A lot of my teaching friends have left before me, but I still keep in touch with them.”

Since Ms. Taylor was hired at St. Louis three days before the school year started, her room was a mess, and she wasn’t going to be able to clean it up in time. The parents at St. Louis saw how worried she was and stepped in to help by cleaning her room and organizing her lesson plan. She says she has met some truly incredible people here at St. Louis.

How would you like to spend your summers when you leave St. Louis?

“I think I’m going to move back East and vacation here in the summers… When I became a teacher, I thought I would have the summers to write, but I don’t, so I will probably catch up on my writing when I retire.”

Ms. Taylor has a passion for writing and even used to be a newspaper reporter. Her passion to write is still strong, and she hopes to do plenty of it when she retires.

Ms. Taylor with the eight grade class of 2020 at St. Louis. (Photos provided)

What accomplishments fill you with pride over the last 20 years at St. Louis?

“Having student teachers come back. I enjoy having my students come back wanting to pursue a job as a teacher.”

Ms. Taylor feels that she did her job properly when she inspires her students so much that they come back asking for assistance so that they can be just like her. She also enjoys hearing from students who have graduated and she can see what they are up to and how she impacted their lives.

Is there a quote/ saying that you live your life by?

“Be the change you want to see in the world.” – Gandhi

Ms. Taylor believes that if you want to improve the world, you will have to set a good example of how we should treat each other and how we should live our lives. Ms. Taylor sets a good example for her children in hopes that they will go out and set a good example for the rest of the world.

If you could pass on any wisdom to your students, what would you share?

“Don’t sweat the small stuff,” Ms. Taylor believes.

She thinks that people shouldn’t worry as much about the minor issues in life but focus on the things that are more important.

What would students be surprised to find out about you?

“This is kind of embarrassing, but I was actually in the Mrs. Massachusetts pageant… It was great for all my friends because they got to watch me up on the stage, but for me, it was like, “What do we do now?” and “Why am I doing this?”

Ms. Taylor also brought in a picture of a quilt she made with her class one year, which hung in the capitol building for one month. The whole class received official certificates of their work from the quilt, and the quilt sold for $2,000 at our school’s Gala.

Ms. Taylor is an incredible teacher and has been here for her students for over 20 years. We wish her luck in her further adventures and will always remember her here at St. Louis as an amazing teacher and friend.