Here comes Halloween, with its legions of ghosts, ghouls, witches, bats, spider webs, flickering candles and haunted houses. With all the spooky hoopla, it’s easy to forget that the day originally had a very different meaning, and still does.
Halloween, of course, means “the Eve of All Hallows”—the vigil of the feast of All Saints, Nov. 1. It’s followed by All Souls Day, Nov. 2, when the Church prays for all the faithful who have died. The two are connected, and they deserve a closer look. Every December we are rightly advised to “Keep Christ in Christmas.” With the annual autumn festival upon us, it’s time we put the “Hallow” back into Halloween.
Hallow is an Old English word for saint or holy person. “All Hallows” means “All Saints.” The observance of the feast goes back many centuries. One account states that in the eighth century Pope Gregory III dedicated an oratory in honor of all the saints on Nov. 1; the date then became official for a feast in Rome honoring the saints. In the ninth century, Pope Gregory IV extended the feast throughout the Church.
As its name indicates, the feast honors saints known and unknown, canonized or not. It is the feast of all persons who dwell with God in eternity. It’s likely that each of us knows someone whose life ended without fame or fanfare, but whose holiness continues to inspire us, and whose prayers we depend on.
All Souls Day also evolved long ago. In the late 10th or early 11th century, St. Odilo, abbot of the Benedictine Monastery of Cluny, called on the monks of all monasteries within his jurisdiction to pray for the dead on the day following the feast of All Saints. The practice spread to other religious orders and gradually to the entire Church. It might have been a new idea to set aside a day to pray for the dead, but the practice itself is rooted in the Old Testament. The Jewish priest and leader Judas Maccabeus ordered his soldiers to pray for those killed in battle, and collected money for a sacrifice to atone for their sins. It is written in 2 Maccabees that it is “a holy and pious thought” to pray for the dead.
With its sacred roots, how did Halloween get ghoulish and scary? The answer is rooted partly in Celtic mythology. The ancient Celts celebrated a feast on Nov. 1 called Samhain. It was one of four seasonal feasts in the Celtic year, and it marked the start of winter. The Celts believed that the spirits of the dead walked the earth on the night of Oct. 31, along with mischievous spirits that had to be placated with sacrifices and offerings of food. The people celebrated with bonfires and feasting, and sometimes wore costumes.
As Christianity spread, pagan customs waned, but some of the merrymaking traditions survived in different forms, removed from pagan beliefs. Add a dash of contemporary commercialism, and it’s easy to see how Halloween took on its current form. Don’t let the secular crowd out the spiritual.
Remembering the origin and meaning of Halloween—All Saints Eve—doesn’t mean giving up the fun. There’s no need to stop trick-or-treating or forgo costumes and candy corn. But we need to remember that Nov. 1 is a holy day on which the Church calls us to attend Mass, celebrate the saints, and ask them to pray for us. All Souls’ Day, Nov. 2, is not a holy day of obligation, but it offers us a special opportunity to remember our deceased loved ones and to pray for them and to them, asking for their intercession.
All Saints Day and All Souls Day remind us that our true destiny is to live forever with God and his holy ones. Those who have gone before us—the saints and our own beloved dead—remind us to remain true to our faith and our heritage, and to hold onto the promise of Christ: “I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”
At its heart, Halloween isn’t scary. It’s filled with hope.