October 31. Halloween. A headache for parents, an event that children anticipate all year. This is a challenging time for parents because they have to get some type of costume for their children and buy large amounts of candy for those who will visit their humble abode on that day. Children enjoy this day because they are allowed to dress ridiculously and collect large amounts of candy which should last one or two months if they carefully budget their junk food eating.
For those not familiar with the modern Western tradition of Halloween, it is a peculiar custom where children dress up in some type of costume, a hero they have, a monster, or whatever their overactive imaginations can think of, and then at night they go door to door asking for candy. Actually, what they usually say is, “Trick or Treat”. What they want is the treat, meaning the candy or anything else that is unhealthy and tastes good. In most cases, they get the treat. In some instances, the people in the home pretend they are not there and don’t answer the door. For those foolish enough not to answer the door and give a treat, they must face the wrath of the costumed children, in other words, this is the Trick. This can entail acts along the lines of eggs (usually raw or soft boiled) thrown at various parts of the house, or other terrible things which we won’t discuss here so that we don’t give any ideas to any kids who read this chapter. Note that the trick part usually isn’t played, not only because of the legal ramifications of vandalism, but mainly because the kids have a lot of ground to cover and don’t want to waste time with those not willing to play ball.
This sounds harmless enough. Just a fun time for children to collect candy and make more work for dentists down the road. It shouldn’t bother anyone, right? Wrong. Conservative Christians, mainly Fundamentalists, see Halloween and in particular, All Saints Day, as pagan in origin and therefore evil. No one who calls themselves a Christian should participate in this festival. Where did our Christian brethren get this idea from? Is Halloween really an evil tradition which should be avoided?
To begin, a history lesson. The concept of Halloween came from an old fire festival courtesy of the Celtics. The Celts were a pagan people who lived on the British Isles, Ireland, and northwest France. The festival was called Samhain, pronounced “sow-in”, where “sow” is pronounced like “cow”. The Celts celebrated this festival at the end of each summer. According to their spiritual beliefs, they believed this day to be the most effective time to communicate with their deceased family and friends.
The word Halloween was derived from the British day called All Hallows on November 1st, where the previous day was called All Hallows Eve. The day of November 1 was also known as Hallowmas. The purpose of All Saints Day is not to pray for the souls in Purgatory, as many misinformed people believe. It is meant for honouring ALL saints, both known and unknown. Most saints are ignored or don’t receive the proper veneration due to them. This day brings the Church together to honour them.
The next day, All Souls Day, is meant to pray for and honour those holy souls who are in Purgatory. All Souls Day would normally occur on November 2 unless this day is a Sunday or a solemnity, where in that case it would be moved to the next day. On that day, there is usually a special Mass to pray for our beloved family and friends in Purgatory.
The veneration of saints occurred from the earliest periods of Church history. The early Christians honoured the greatest of the martyred saints on the anniversary of their deaths at the location they were martyred. By the fourth century, neighbouring dioceses began sharing their relics with each other for the veneration of their saints and they also made common days when they would be honoured. When Diocletian (284-305 A.D.) persecuted Christians, there were so many martyrs that each could not have a separate day assigned to them, so a common day was applied to all. Evidence of this common day was found in Antioch (the first Sunday after Pentecost), the sermon of St. Ephrem the Syrian (373 A.D.), and from St. John Chrysostom’s 74th homily (407 A.D.).
The first steps towards a universal day to honour the saints occurred when the Pantheon of Rome was consecrated to the Blessed Virgin and all of the martyrs by Pope St. Boniface IV in May 13, 609 or 610 (it is not known which of these years it took place in). The pope also set an anniversary to honour these saints. Pope St. Gregory III (731-741 A.D.) started the feast of All Saints on November 1st with the consecration of a chapel in the basilica of St. Peter for all the saints.
Christians have been praying for the Holy Souls in Purgatory from the time of the Apostles. Benedictine monasteries had a common day of pray for their members in Purgatory annually in the 6th Century. In 7th Century Spain, the first Saturday before Pentecost was when they honoured the poor souls. Germans also had an annual devotion for the souls which occurred on October 1st in the 10th Century. This devotion spread throughout the Church and eventually it was set on November 2nd as All Souls Day.
So what’s the big fuss about? Why do conservative Christians oppose Halloween and All Saints/Souls Day? Since Halloween itself is pagan in origin, coming from Samhain, they reject it simply because they believe that anything pagan is evil (although many of them have no objection to the pagan custom of wedding rings). They also oppose the Catholic feast days of Nov. 1 and 2 because they involve honouring and praying to Saints, and praying for the souls in Purgatory. Devotion to saints and the existence of Purgatory are denied by our Protestant brothers since they claim that these are Catholic “inventions”. What they don’t realize is that these doctrines have been taught by Christians before Protestant Reformers rejected them in the 16th Century. One has to only read the writings of the early Church Fathers to see this.
The unfortunate thing about Halloween is that an opportunity exists for those opposed to Catholicism to attack it. By pointing out the pagan origins of Halloween and pointing to All Saints Day, they try to plant the seeds of doubt in Catholic minds in an attempt to convert them to their own belief system. It should be remembered that history supports the Catholic side. The practices of Christians throughout the ages confirms that they prayed to saints and also for the souls in Purgatory. There is also biblical evidence which points towards prayers benefiting the dead. Jesus also promised that the Church would be free from doctrinal error. He told Peter that the “gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). Praying to saints and belief in Purgatory are most certainly valid Christian beliefs.
Don’t be concerned over All Saints Day and All Souls Day. These are wonderful times to remember the saints and the poor souls. Remember to pray for the souls in Purgatory, since it is a “holy and pious thought” (2 Maccabees 12:45) to do so. Also, don’t just pray for the souls once a year, there are many of our brothers and sisters in Purgatory and we should pray for them each day. Encourage your family and friends to do so as well. Remember, one day you may be in Purgatory and you would then want people to pray for you.