Note: This is the first essay of a series on the Hallowtide Trivium (Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day).
Part One- All Hallows Eve
If you are like most Catholics you are probably thinking about Halloween in one of two ways. Either it's a night so imbued with occult undertones that Catholics should have nothing to do with it, or it's just another secular and overly-commercialized holiday for people to have a little mindless fun before a holy day of obligation.
This is unfortunate since these two views represent a false set of choices, with the former representing a view of Halloween that is historically inaccurate and the latter highlighting how many Catholics have essentially “gone native” in our contemporary culture.
In either case though, when it comes to Halloween, many of the ideas Catholics have about the holiday have been shaped by forces outside of the Church. If we are serious about preserving and passing on a Catholic faith capable of repairing and in time reshaping our culture, then we need to rethink the way we live out our faith and observe our feast days, beginning with Halloween.
Getting Back to Basics
The first problem with how Halloween is observed today by a lot of Catholics is that it lacks liturgical context. Halloween or All Hallows Eve is the first day of one of the Church's numerous tridua and used to be called “All hallowtide,” “Hallowtide,” or Hallowmas,” and included All Hallows Eve (October 31), All Saints Day (November 1), and All Souls Day (November 2).
This Triduum was observed by the Church until its legitimacy was called into question on one particular October 31st in 1517 by Martin Luther. However, what began as a protest against the abuses and corruptions of certain Catholic practices, led him to first question the theology behind those practices, and ended with him completely denying the authority of the Catholic Church as a whole.
Luther's protest became a kind of template for every reformer who came after him, in that in order to justify establishing a church or theology apart from the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic church, they first had to explain why the Church's authority in the realm of faith and morals was illegitimate or faulty.
This of course created a huge problem for those “reformers” because the Church's authority is not an abstract concept that can be reduced to a generic set of principles, let alone the opinion of any one person. It is part of a living faith whose truth is rooted in Sacred Scripture, Church tradition, and a tangible Magisterium which has safeguarded the faith throughout history.
Hence, anyone who sets out to reject the Church's authority will eventually have to reject, ignore, or misinterpret all of the historical contexts and records that have supported its authority from the beginning. It is this Protestant presumption, the tendency to distort the teachings, traditions, and history of the Catholic Church in order to presume their own authority apart from it, that is at the root at almost all of the ecclesiastical legends surrounding Halloween as it is celebrated in the U.S.
Made in America
King Henry VIII's establishment of the Church of England was still too Roman for the Puritans who came to the New World, and so with the exception of areas that were settled by Catholic Spain (Florida and the Southwest) or France (Louisiana), and Maryland, the Catholic faith was generally suppressed in the original thirteen colonies. Yet it was from those Catholic areas where many of the traditions that we now associate with Halloween were brought to the New World by the various Catholic Cultures that settled there.
Traditions such as dressing up for masquerade parties and Carnival festivals that dated back to the 14th and 15th centuries in Europe were practiced in Louisiana. From the more rough-hewed of the original colonists from Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, came numerous traditions such as “mumming” which dates back to medieval times and involved people going door to door and performing short acts or songs in exchange for food and drink.
There was also “souling” which was a tradition dating back to the 15th century where people would go from door to door on All Hallows Eve to sing songs or offer to pray for the dead in exchange for soul cakes. In Scotland and Wales, souling was often associated with “Guising” which involved youths dressing up in scary costumes, and pulling small pranks if their souling efforts were met with slammed doors.
As can be seen, all of these activities were, both in the Old World and the New, were still associated with a Catholic-oriented observance of All Hallows Eve. So how did these pious practices of ordinary Catholics of the past, come to be perceived as the diabolical remnants of pagan worship that some claim they are today?
The Diminishing of a Holiday
The change in attitude towards these Catholic cultural practices began during the waves of immigration that came to America from predominately Catholic countries such as Poland, Italy, and Ireland during the 19th century.
Just as during the time of the Protestant revolt, when politics and religion commingled to stoke an anti-Catholic mood, the arrival of those immigrants was met with America's lingering enmity towards “Papism” or “Romanism” in two forms. The first was political as the mid-1800's saw an increase in nativist sentiment in response to the Catholic influx, as was seen in the emergence of the American or Know Nothing party in the 1850's. The other was religious. Once again, the Protestant presumption worked in tandem with the Know Nothing mood of the times to distort the teachings and history of the Catholic faith as well as Catholics themselves.
It was during that period that two books were published that would go on to shape the way many Americans would come to see Halloween. One was The Two Babylons: Papal Worship Proved to be Worship of Nimrod and His Wife written in 1858 by a Scottish minister named Alexander Hislop. In it he made the claim that Constantine grafted elements of Babylonian mystery cults into the Church's practices and teachings in order to consolidate his political power. Hislop's claims would later be parroted by Lorraine Boettner in his 1962 book Roman Catholicism.
The other was James Frazer's 1890 The Golden Bough, which was the first major work on comparative religion where he tried to show how all religions shared common origins. Frazer's claims were revived and added to during the Joseph Campbell Power of Myth craze of the early 1990’s, as well as with the 2007 video Zeitgest. These claims that Christianity just borrowed from other older religions are still rampant in the atheist blogospere today.
It was those two works that laid the groundwork from which pamphlets by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, non-fiction study guides for Tim LaHaye's Left Behind series, or all those Jack Chick tracts that many of us received in our trick-or-treat bags as kids, all got their misinformation about Halloween.
For instance, take the most common claim about Halloween: that it was established by the Catholic Church to suppress and supersede the ancient festival of Samhain in order to convert the Celts. The assertion is made all the time and is presented as an objective historical fact, even by some Catholic sites. But where did it came from? It came from The Golden Bough where James Frazer tried to make the case that it was actually Christianity that stole the idea for the holiday from the pagans. But what did he base that claim on? We don't know, he never got around to citing any verifiable sources- in other words nothing.
This sort of citational sloppiness is rampant among Protestant presumptive literature, as they tend to make the same claims about Halloween (and Catholicism in general) without ever providing any original church or historical sources to back their claims up. Being able to do so is important, not only for reasons of credibility, but also for the sake of historicity. After all, it was Catholic missionaries who brought literacy to the ancient peoples of the British Isles. In fact, there were Irish monks living in monasteries during the 5th century, even before St. Patrick arrived, and they recorded the early Church's history and accounts of their missionary efforts in Ireland.
If one were to take the time to actually read those early Irish writings- which have been translated from Latin- they would discover that there is very little documented evidence about the rituals and practices of the early Celts or whether they were even still practicing Samhain by the time Irish missionaries encountered them, to say nothing of offering any sort of definitive proof that Samhain and All Hallows Eve are in any way connected. The proof is just not there, and interestingly enough, in their more honest moments, modern pagan and Wiccan practitioners will admit as much.
Taking Back What's Ours
It is from this perspective that it can hopefully be seen that all of the negative hype surrounding Halloween is just that, hype. This is not to say that we should not be wary of inviting in or taking part in occult activities, but it does mean that the way it is celebrated today, Halloween is both over and under-rated as a holiday. It has become this way because we as Catholics have not been vigilant enough in the practice of our faith to keep both the secular world (with its rampant consumerism and blasé attitude towards the occult) and Protestant presumptions from diminishing it.
It is our holiday, as is the entire Hallowtide or Hallowmas triduum (terms we really need to bring back!). So perhaps it is time we start treating it like one of our own. Thus, whether you decide to go to a vigil mass, a Church social, or yes even trick-or-treating, then do so. Whatever you do though, just make sure to do it ad lumina Christi, or as a silly but salient video I used to show my kids before each Halloween rhapsodized,
“The armies of darkness while doing their worst, Can never extinguish this Dazzling Sunburst. So ridicule rogues if you must play a role; But beware getting lost in that bottomless hole. The triumph is not with the forces of night. It dawned with the One who said “I am the Light.”