Before I wade into a potentially controversial topic, let me say what this post is not. Some popular Catholic Instagrammers and Bloggers have thrown in their two cents on the subject of Halloween. As they do every year. This post is not a rebuttal to anyone in particular. I just saw people talking about it and thought I would propose my own defense of a Catholic Halloween. Because there is such a thing, as I hope you will realize after reading this blog post.
There are valid concerns when it comes to Halloween. It has been secularized to an extreme. It is also a big holiday for Satanists and other occultists. Last year, Monsignor Rosetti’s website Catholic Exorcism posted an article about the spiritual battles exorcists and sensitives endure during Halloween. Weirdly, that post is no longer accessible on that site but you can read it over at Church Pop.
It seems like many people use Halloween as an excuse to free fall into darkness and the occult. For most, it’s all in the name of “good fun”. For others, it’s all in the name of something horrible.
I am in no way minimizing these concerns. They are real and should be considered. At the same time, though, should we really throw out the baby with the bathwater? Because long before Satanists sunk their claws into it, Halloween was a Catholic holiday. And it still is.
A Bit of Halloween History
The evidence is in the name. “Hallows” is an old word that means saints. “Een” or “e’en” means evening or eve. As you may have already guessed, the word Halloween is the corruption of the name “All Hallows’ Eve”, which means “All Saints’ Eve”. The eve of a big feast is known as its vigil. Therefore, Halloween is the vigil of All Saints.
People like to say that Halloween comes from the Celtic festival Samhain. But anyone with any sense of history knows that is false. All Saints first arose as a feast in Rome, not Ireland. Secondly, when the feast reached Ireland, the Catholics there originally celebrated All Saints in the spring to avoid association with Samhain. It wasn’t until the 9th century, under Pope Gregory IV, that All Saints became a holy day of obligation on November 1. Because holy days have vigils, All Saints’ Eve (aka Halloween) naturally came into existence on October 31.
Nota bene: As far as I know, there’s no historical evidence to suggest that Gregory IV was even aware of the Celtic festival Samhain when he set the date.
Days of the Dead
Thanks to Vatican II, Catholics have forgotten about the power and importance of vigils. At one time, it was the requirement to fast on the vigils of all holy days of obligation, including the vigil of All Saints (a.k.a. Halloween). Fasting allows one to properly celebrate the feast.
So, there’s All Saints’/Hallows’ Eve. There’s All Saints Day. Then, there’s All Souls Day. These three days are known, colloquially, as Hallowtide or the Days of the Dead. All Souls remembers the Poor Souls in Purgatory. On All Saints, we remember the saints and blessed in Heaven. All Hallows is the day on which we remember the reality of Hell and how to avoid it as we prepare for the great feast of All Saints.
Because of the emphasis on the fate of the damned, Halloween naturally developed a darker character. And it took on tones of fun and jest because that’s the Catholic way of thumbing our nose at the dark. We know Christ has the victory.
This leads me to my next point: many of the Halloween customs of today have Catholic roots.
Dressing up in costume? Thank the Catholic French, who dressed like the dead in order to laugh in the face of death during the Black Plague. Trick or treating? That comes from “soulling”, when children went door to door, promising to pray for the dead in return for soul cakes. Jack-o-lanterns? Well, they used to be carved turnips. According to an Irish legend, both Heaven and Hell rejected a terrible man named Jack. He was doomed to wander the earth for all eternity by the light of an ember in a carved turnip. You don’t want to end up like Jack, so carve a pumpkin (or turnip) so you won’t forget.
Catholics aware of the spiritual battle raging all around us are naturally repulsed by the dark, nihilistic nature of the modern Halloween.. When society has become as rotten as it is right now, the natural impulse is to “not engage”. And by not engaging, I mean turning off all the lights and pretending this holiday doesn’t even exist.
However. Why should I give up a day that is historically mine and connected to one of the great feasts of the year?
You can have a Catholic Halloween. Research the historical customs and choose the ones that resonate with you. Prepare for All Saints with fasting and setting up an altar to the saints and the deceased. Go ahead and decorate your home in a way that aligns with your conscience! Vigils are times to get ready for big feasts. So, get ready! It’s Hallowtide!
P.S. — In case you missed it, click this link to an article that goes more in depth about Halloween and how to celebrate it.