All Hallows’ Eve: The Catholic Roots of Halloween
Americans aren’t used to thinking of Halloween as a religious holiday. With all the horror movies, the skulls and gory figurines on peoples’ lawns and the – well, spookiness – the Catholic roots of Halloween now generally lie six feet under people’s minds. This is precisely why it’s time to dig up these roots.
As many know, Halloween (or Hallowe’en) is a shortened version of “All Hallows’ Eve”. As such, it is the vigil or “eve” of the Solemnity of All Saints Day (or Feast of All Hallows) on November 1. Just as we say “hallowed be Thy name”, the word “hallowed” is familiar as meaning “holy” (which is what “saint” means). So, how did Halloween become so disconnected from this origin? More importantly: how can the authentic meaning of the vigil of All Saints be regained?
The Most Rev. David Konderla, Bishop of Tulsa, recently wrote a Memorandum on the Celebration of Halloween, in which he says:
“As the annual celebration of Halloween approaches, we are reminded of the importance of maintaining the Catholic meaning and purpose of all holy days, especially those which have been adopted and adapted by the culture around us. Over time, popular culture has made it difficult to discern the authentic spirit of this great feast, an important time when we, God’s pilgrim church on earth, rejoice in the lives of all God’s saints whom we wish to follow into eternal life.”
In an enlightening and informative article, Dr. Marcel Antonio Brown spells out two steps towards this goal:
“If Catholics are to reclaim the authentic meaning of Halloween for all ages by making a genuine religious observance on All Hallows Eve, the first step must be to recognize and reject the secularization of the feast, the second step to think creatively about ways in which to recover the evening’s authentic devotional festivity.”
Step 1: Recognizing and Rejecting
This step doesn’t need to imply not having fun or not enjoying the evening of October 31. Quite the contrary! After all, if sainthood – holiness! – is the goal of each Catholic and to be holy means to be joyful, why shouldn’t the Solemnity of All Saints be enjoyable – and fun?
Brown points out that the very inspiration for placing All Saints on November 1 – and its vigil on October 31 – was born of the desire to teach and educate the non-Christians or those who had received insufficient catechetical instruction. He says:
“In order to turn the attention of the faithful towards God and away from divination, astrology, clairvoyance, magic, sorcery, occult powers, and spiritism (see Exodus 20:1-3, Deuteronomy 5:6-7, and CCC 2115-17), the Church situated the Solemnity of All Saints in a manner which would turn the evil of pagan culture to some good. No longer would the evening be devoted to “all witches” or “all evil ones”; instead October 31 would be dedicated to All Saints.”
In this context, the symbolism of death – and other spooky figures – takes on a meaning only in relation to Christ’s Resurrection:
“Props such as scythes and skulls have historically recalled our mortality and Christ’s victory over death. For example, a fresco by Giusto de Menabuoi in the Baptistery in Padua depicts our Lord as the prototype of the Reaper, as “one who looked like a son of man, with a gold crown on his head and a sharp sickle in his hand” (Revelation 14:14). Halloween’s visibly grim reminders of mortality therefore ought to elicit our devout attentiveness to the last things—death, judgment, heaven, and hell (CCC 1020-65)—while at the same time reminding us of Christ’s ultimate dominion over all.”
Bishop Konderla marks out the dangers that come about when these symbols are misunderstood:
“Separated from Catholic teaching, grim or ghoulish or “Gothic” costumes can furthermore be mistaken as a celebration or veneration of evil or of death itself, contradicting the full and authentic meaning of Halloween”.
Step 2: Thinking Creatively
So how can this “authentic meaning” be lived and celebrated in a way that is both meaningful and enjoyable, fun and educational? One big way is to use the saints as role models, as superheroes of faith that – unlike Superman and Batman – we can actually really imitate! What is more, the saints who are alive and reigning with Christ in Heaven are actively pleading for us before God and can be powerful protectors and lifelong friends. So one key step towards recovering the Catholic sense of Halloween is to imitate the saints. Brown says:
“By imitating the saints, Christians young and old make discipleship their own in a special way, following the exhortation of St. Paul who adjures the Corinthians, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). St. Basil the Great extends this logic to the lawful veneration of images, writing, “the honor rendered to an image passes to its prototype,” to which he adds, “whoever venerates an image venerates the person portrayed in it” (CCC 2132). Proper veneration of the saints naturally leads to adoration of the Lamb who was slain (Revelation 5:12), whom all the saints adore (Revelation 7) and whom the 144,000 virgins joyously follow wherever he goes (Revelation 14). By imitating their witness, true devotion to the saints leads us sinners back to Christ.”
Does this mean that kids shouldn’t dress up? Certainly not! Bishop Konderla says that “The custom of dressing up for Halloween is devotional in spirit. By dressing up as the saints whom we most admire, we imagine ourselves following their example of Christian discipleship.”
Perhaps children could dress up as their patron saint or a saint that they would like to learn more about. The tradition of giving and receiving candy and other goodies can easily be linked back to Christ who is God’s gift to us, as well as the Holy Spirit who is the gift that Jesus sent to his Church.
Brown sums up:
“Halloween, an essentially Paschal holy day, represents an unsurpassed opportunity for the lay faithful to express devotion to God through the veneration of all his saints. The good to be done is evident, as is the evil to be avoided. The saints are to be glorified, Christ’s victory over sin and death recalled. Anything which detracts from the glory of God and his saints is to be avoided.”
All of these reflections ultimately lead to a reflection on the Catholic understanding of death and life, which is only ultimately understood in the context of Eternal Life:
“Death glorified, death apart from its subjection to the Paschal Mystery, death apart from Christ’s victory over death, is not death properly considered from a Christian standpoint. Christ has conquered death, as has been prophesied and fulfilled, “Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55; cf. Hosea 13:14). By his passion, death, and resurrection, by his Paschal Mystery, Christ’s victory over sin and its wages, death (Romans 6:23), has made available to us some share in “the lot of the saints in light” (Colossians 1:12).
With all these thoughts in mind, we wish a Happy Halloween and Happy All Saints Day to you all.
- Bishop David Konderla, Memorandum On the Celebration of Halloween Within the Diocese of Tulsa & Eastern Oklahoma; https://dioceseoftulsa.org/official-statements
- Marcel Antonio Brown, “The Holy Ghosts of Halloween: Resurrecting a Catholic Feast”; https://adoremus.org/2018/10/the-holy-ghosts-of-halloween-resurrecting-a-catholic-feast/