Friday, October 31, 2008

Is Halloween Christian?

I have noticed in passing that a number of American bloggers claim Halloween is Catholic, and urge it should be defended from Puritans. I presume the "Puritans" are those who try to keep it as a vigil of All Saints, those who say First Vespers of All Saints early and get the local children round to celebrate by dressing up as saints.

When I was a boy, in the Home Counties, Halloween was kept with "apple bobbing" and a couple of ghost stories, now pumpkin lanterns, ghoulish costumes and "trick or treating" has crept in. I know in other parts of the UK the occasional manglewurzel was carved with a leering face but most of the newer customs here seem to be imported from the US.

I am not sure why we bobbed for apples, neither am I sure why dressing up as the Beast from the Black Lagoon should be considered Catholic. I am sure that we need a degree of misrule in our lives from time to time, hence April Fool's Day and ancient customs of fool kings and boy bishops associated with a season of "Misrule" at Christmas or Epiphany, when masters became servants and servants masters. The Church's role here was merely to stop excess. But I can see nothing that is "Catholic" here.

All Saints is obviously about remembering Heaven, All Souls, naturally follows on as we remember those destined for a place amongst the Blessed, but are actually in Purgatory, both have their rites. Halloween, however seems to be an entirely pagan affair, a remembrance of those in Hell, beyond the power of prayer and the Church. The only Christian idea seems to be to remind us of the damned and damnable, those outside of the Life of Grace, like gargoyles on the outside of a Church.


Anonymous said...

Hi Fr,

I think the 'Puritans' are those who say 'Goodness, this Halloween thing is scary and dangerous and pagan and we must keep our kids indoors'. Remember, in America they have people with a similar fear of Christmas (not in the Bible you know..)

Halloween is as Catholic as we make it - we have a long and venerable tradition of taking pagan themes and stealing them (think of the evergreen trees that used to be the object of pagan worship).

The Catholic element of Halloween is, as you say, like gargoyles. Gargoyles are fun. A little bit of controlled fear (c/f rollercoasters) is fun and an awareness of our own mortality and the existence of evil is a good thing.

Clearly, like Christmas, it's possible to have a completely secular Halloween, but that doesn't mean Halloween can't be deeply christian.

Dilly said...

I was brought up in rural Scotland in the 60s, and Guising (where you dress up, and offer a song or dance or poem in return for goodies, without the "trick" element) was one of the few occasions our many devout elderly presbyterian neighbours let their hair down. I still don't know how that one slipped under the calvinist bar. If you look up "Soul cakes" in Wikipedia, or go to you will see the rationale behind a Catholic celebration - to encourage prayers for the Holy Souls. Having checked a couple of pagan sites, it looks as if this is one of the clever ways that the Church took an element of pagan worship and subverted it by replacing it with a pious practice, as they did with well-dressing at Beltane, and Imbolc at Candlemas. The original purpose of begging alms to say prayers for the dead would obviously have been suppressed in countries where anabaptist versions of purgatory-denying protestantism held sway (and Puritans are anabaptists) - and that is the problem, as the Catholic interpretation has been lost, only the pagan explanation remains. I think Catholics could properly reclaim and publicise the offering of prayers for the dead without a qualm, as it is a spiritual work of mercy. Apple Bobbing? Now that's pagan, Father.

Anonymous said...

The first celebration of All Saints Day was after Pentecost where it remains in the Byzantine Calendar.

The Church moved the celebration to November 1st to reclaim a former pagan festival and to Christianise it.

I find it rather repulsive when I go into Sainsburys and see shelves packed full of Halloween merchandise. Much better to keep the Vigil and celebrate the feast. A little apple ducking does no harm but why dress anyone as a witch or demon?

Volpius Leonius said...

"The only Christian idea seems to be to remind us of the damned and damnable, those outside of the Life of Grace,"

In which case a celebration isn't really appropriate is it?

GOR said...

"Apple-bobbing" - Yes I remember that Father! Also I recall trying to fish out pennies with your mouth from a bowl of water. Of course pennies were a lot larger then...

While we didn't have the "Trick or Treat" element in 1950s Ireland, pranks were played on people at Halloween. My uncle - an inveterate prankster - liked to tie a thread to the door knocker of his neighbour's house across the street and by pulling on it see how many times he could get the neighbour to come to the door, before he figured it out!

While there was some simple feasting and game-playing at Halloween, it was always seen as a prelude to All Saints and All Souls. On All Souls people would make repeated visits to the church throughout the day and into the night to pray and earn indulgences for the Holy Souls.

I would like to see that practice revived as I fear we don't pray enough or give enough attention to the Holy Souls in Purgatory.

Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine et lux perpetua luceat eis..

Mary Martha said...

I think the 'puritans' are those Christians who attack any celebration of Halloween as 'pagan' and of the Devil. They are the type who not only don't want to be 'of the culture' they don't want to be in it either.

Halloween is as Catholic as you want it to be. Some Catholic Schools have a dress up day today - where the children dress as their favorite Saint.

It's a fun secular holiday for children. As long as we go to Mass for the Holy Day of Obligation the next day... what does it matter if we dressed up and went to a party the night before?

Some adults go totally over the top for Halloween but I think it's all in good fun. That's why the attacks against the holiday are pushed back against so strongly by so many people.

Anonymous said...

Gor ends his post with the beautiful prayer which years ago was always said at Mass following the list of those who had recently died, or whose anniversaries fell that week.

Making the sign of the Cross at the 'May their Souls and the souls of all the faithful departed rest in peace' which followed was for me an important part and one which I still miss to this day. As one gets older there are so many more relations and friends to pray for...

I know there is nothing to stop me from saying this prayer myself but I would like to know why it was 'dropped' without any explanation or whether it was peculiar to that particular parish at the time. Curiously the same parish used to sing 'God save the Queen' after the Sunday Sung Mass and for a long time I thought all Catholic churches did the same!

nickbris said...

Just another excuse for ill mannered,unbrought up scallywags to do what they will always do.

Educators are not allowed to educate so nobody knows anymore what it means,they have difficulty explaining about All Hallowes Eve being the evening before All Saints Day.

Another "Holy Day" stolen by so called Businessmen,they've already destroyed Christmas & Easter.

Anonymous said...

This from Fr Augustine Thompson OP

Origin of Halloween

We’ve all heard the allegations: Halloween is a pagan rite dating back to some pre-Christian festival among the Celtic Druids that escaped church suppression. Even today modern pagans and witches continue to celebrate this ancient festival. If you let your kids go trick-or-treating, they will be worshiping the devil and pagan gods.
Nothing could be further from the truth.

The origins of Halloween are, in fact, very Christian and rather American. Halloween falls on October 31 because of a pope, and its observances are the result of medieval Catholic piety.

It’s true that the ancient Celts of Ireland and Britain celebrated a minor festival on October 31--as they did on the last day of most other months of the year. However, Halloween falls on the last day of October because the Feast of All Saints, or "All Hallows," falls on November 1. The feast in honor of all the saints in heaven used to be celebrated on May 13, but Pope Gregory III (d. 741) moved it to November 1, the dedication day of All Saints Chapel in St. Peter’s at Rome. Later, in the 840s, Pope Gregory IV commanded that All Saints be observed everywhere. And so the holy day spread to Ireland.

The day before was the feast’s evening vigil, "All Hallows Even," or "Hallowe’en." In those days Halloween didn’t have any special significance for Christians or for long-dead Celtic pagans.

In 998, St. Odilo, the abbot of the powerful monastery of Cluny in southern France, added a celebration on November 2. This was a day of prayer for the souls of all the faithful departed. This feast, called All Souls Day, spread from France to the rest of Europe.

So now the Church had feasts for all those in heaven and all those in purgatory. What about those in the other place? It seems Irish Catholic peasants wondered about the unfortunate souls in hell. After all, if the souls in hell are left out when we celebrate those in heaven and purgatory, they might be unhappy enough to cause trouble. So it became customary to bang pots and pans on All Hallows Even to let the damned know they were not forgotten. Thus, in Ireland at least, all the dead came to be remembered--even if the clergy were not terribly sympathetic to Halloween and never allowed All Damned Day into the church calendar.

But that still isn’t our celebration of Halloween. Our traditions on this holiday center on dressing up in fanciful costumes, which isn’t Irish at all. Rather, this custom arose in France during the 14th and 15th centuries. Late medieval Europe was hit by repeated outbreaks of the bubonic plague--the Black Death--and it lost about half its population. It is not surprising that Catholics became more concerned about the afterlife.

More Masses were said on All Souls Day, and artistic representations were devised to remind everyone of their own mortality. We know these representations as the danse macabre, or "dance of death," which was commonly painted on the walls of cemeteries and shows the devil leading a daisy chain of people--popes, kings, ladies, knights, monks, peasants, lepers, etc.--into the tomb. Sometimes the dance was presented on All Souls Day itself as a living tableau with people dressed up in the garb of various states of life.
But the French dressed up on All Souls, not Halloween; and the Irish, who had Halloween, did not dress up. How the two became mingled probably happened first in the British colonies of North America during the 1700s, when Irish and French Catholics began to intermarry. The Irish focus on hell gave the French masquerades an even more macabre twist.

But as every young ghoul knows, dressing up isn’t the point; the point is getting as many goodies as possible. "Treat or treat" is perhaps the oddest and most American addition to Halloween and is the unwilling contribution of English Catholics.

Where on earth did "trick or treat" come in?

During the penal period of the 1500s to the 1700s in England, Catholics had no legal rights. They could not hold office and were subject to fines, jail and heavy taxes. It was a capital offense to say Mass, and hundreds of priests were martyred.

Occasionally, English Catholics resisted, sometimes foolishly. One of the most foolish acts of resistance was a plot to blow up the Protestant King James I and his Parliament with gunpowder. This was supposed to trigger a Catholic uprising against the oppressors. The ill-conceived Gunpowder Plot was foiled on November 5, 1605, when the man guarding the gunpowder, a reckless convert named Guy Fawkes, was captured and arrested. He was hanged; the plot fizzled.

November 5, Guy Fawkes Day, became a great celebration in England, and so it remains. During the penal periods, bands of revelers would put on masks and visit local Catholics in the dead of night, demanding beer and cakes for their celebration: trick or treat!

Guy Fawkes Day arrived in the American colonies with the first English settlers. But by the time of the American Revolution, old King James and Guy Fawkes had pretty much been forgotten. Trick or treat, though, was too much fun to give up, so eventually it moved to October 31, the day of the Irish-French masquerade. And in America, trick or treat wasn’t limited to Catholics.

The mixture of various immigrant traditions we know as Halloween had become a fixture in the United States by the early 1800s. To this day, it remains unknown in Europe, even in the countries from which some of the customs originated.

But what about witches? Well, they are one of the last additions. The greeting card industry added them in the late 1800s. Halloween was already "ghoulish," so why not give witches a place on greeting cards? The Halloween card failed (although it has seen a recent resurgence in popularity), but the witches stayed.

So too, in the late 1800s, ill-informed folklorists introduced the jack-o’-lantern. They thought that Halloween was Druidic and pagan in origin. Lamps made from turnips (not pumpkins) had been part of ancient Celtic harvest festivals, so they were translated to the American Halloween celebration.

The next time someone claims that Halloween is a cruel trick to lure your children into devil worship, I suggest you tell them the real origin of All Hallows Even and invite them to discover its Christian significance, along with the two greater and more important Catholic festivals that follow it.

Father Augustine Thompson, O.P., is an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia.

gemoftheocean said...

Honey, (or is that Father Honey to you?), RELAX - don't over think this. It's ALL about scoring as much candy as you can. Religion [or conversely Satanism) simply: DOES. NOT. ENTER. INTO. THIS.

It was only protestant evangelicals who started wrecking the whole thing for children about 20 years ago.

When I was a kid in the 60s the ONLY thought was about what costume you were going to choose [you'd think about this for days) and which houses you remembered from the past years that had the best treats.

When the Sainted Father S. was a boy in the depression 30s, there weren't so many treats but a fair amount of tricks. He's "plead the 5th" but the servers and I pegged him for the kind of guy that would tie a few cans on a car, rather than tip over an outhouse. See here for further reference.

Anonymous said...

It started off as a feast day for Celtic pagans. Christians appropriated it and established All Saints/All Souls. In recent years - esp. in the US - the pagans have taken it back again.

It doesn't seem fair to me that Christian kids should have to be left out of the huge extravagant nation-wide party that is Halloween, when Halloween as we know it is itself a corruption of a Catholic holy day. Some Catholic communities in the US celebrate the eve of All Saints by getting the kids to dress up as their favorite saints, tell stories, have food, etc.

I think it's great because:
a.) it's a reminder of what
All Hallows Eve is really supposed to be about; b.) it's a direct contradiction of and challenge to the secular Halloween themes of evil and death that are impossible to escape in the US.

Also, by not letting yet another great Catholic tradition die, we're building up the sense of community among American Catholics. So IMO it's much better to celebrate All Saints rather than ignore the holiday altogether just because secular society has attempted to corrupt its meaning.

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