We celebrate Halloween on October 31st because it is the day before the Feast of All Saints. “Halloween” is another way of saying “Holy Evening”. In the Church, the night before a feast is its vigil, and so with the setting of the sun the new day begins and the celebration can commence. All Saints Day, then, is about remembering all who died after living a life of faithfulness to Christ and now enjoy the presence of God in heaven. We seek to learn from these saint’s earthly example and ask their help as we in turn strive to be faithful to Christ. By the way, we could be celebrating Halloween on May 12th if the Feast of All Saints had not been moved to November 1st back in the first half of the 8th century!
By the 840’s the Feast All Saints was celebrated universally; when it spread to Ireland it is thus a pure coincidence that a preexisting ancient Celtic pagan harvest festival became associated with Halloween.
By 998, St. Odilo, abbot of the monastery of Cluny in France, instituted the Feast of All Souls Day on November 2nd, to pray for those who have died and are saved, but still in need of purification before entering heavenly glory.
We can thank the French for the practice of wearing costumes. In the 14th and 15th centuries the French began holding a “Dance Macabre” - a “Dance of Death” on November 2nd. It was a living tableau of people from various states of life and a reminder that everything passes. It was a practice brought on by the Black Death, a pandemic that saw up to 1/3 of the European population die in about a three-year period.
The phrase, “Trick or treat!” was a November 5th English practice, where persecuted Catholics were visited in the dead of night with the demand for beer and cakes. Following the violent suppression of Catholicism in England, some Catholics thought blowing up the king and parliament and replacing them with new leadership would rectify matters. The plot was discovered on November 5, 1605 and only led to greater persecution for at least another 1.5 centuries.
Jack-o’-lanterns were at first carved turnips used as lamps for ancient Celtic harvest festivals.
All of these practices were eventually mixed together as our ancestors from these various backgrounds immigrated to this country and intermarried.
As we celebrate Halloween this year, I hope that however way you mark the day, it is with a renewed appreciation of how deep our Catholic roots go in cultural practices we might have hitherto taken for granted. Rejoice in the saints; pray for those who have died.
David J. Conrad