Monday, 31 October 2011
"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," says Fr. Augustine Thompson (a professor of mine from UVA with a PhD from UC Berkeley), in an article he wrote several years ago about the origins of Halloween.
But as Fr. Thompson's article, Surprise: Halloween's Not a Pagan Festival After All," describes, this is not the actual origin of Halloween. As we'll go on to see, although the Celts did have their holiday, those celebrations are not where ours came from. So where did our unique, little American celebration come from?
Isn't Halloween Pagan?
Short answer: No. Popular culture (such as this Yahoo! article) likes to point to the Celtic festival of Samhain, which was indeed on October 31, as the origin of our festivities. But the truth is that our American-trick-or-treating-Halloween actually has its origins in medieval Catholic devotions rather than the Celtic festival. The way the Halloween came to America is through the European Catholic settlers who mingled their various traditions. No druids came over and started teaching pagan worship in the colonies (because Ireland had gone Catholic over a 1,000 years before hand).
As Fr. Thompson says, "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."
Why is Halloween celebrated on Oct. 31?
Short answer: Halloween (All Hallow's Eve) is on October 31 because that is the day before feast of All Saints or "All Hallows" in the Catholic liturgical calendar.
Fr. T: "Pope Gregory III (d. 741) moved it [All Hallows Day] 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."
But at this point, the day before doesn't have a whole lot of significance: "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."
Why do we remember the non-saints or all the dead on Halloween? Where does that creepy part come in?
Short answer: the Irish were concerned about All Saints Day and All Souls Days not honoring the souls in Hell, and so they started raising a clamor on All Souls Day to pacify the damned souls. (Not a theologically accurate practice but popular nonetheless).
Fr. T: "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."
Why do people dress up on Halloween?
Short answer: the French started it during the 1300s and 1400s during the black plague to remind people of their mortality (that's where the skeleton thing comes from-- it symbolizes death).
Fr. T: "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."
How did the French costumes and Irish Halloween come together?
Short answer: they mingled in the American colonies, which is why American-style Halloween is unique to the US and not celebrated in Europe.
Fr T: "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."
So where did trick-or-treat come from?
Short answer: On Guy Fawkes Day in England, Protestants used to demand cakes and alcohol for their celebrations from Catholics. When these Brits came to the American colonies, few remembered the origins but the tradition was so much fun that it was continued and the celebration was moved to Halloween to match up with the costumes and ruckus of the French and Irish.
Fr. T: "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."
Alright, but what about the witches and jack-o-lanterns?
Short answer: The witch stereotype from the middle ages was utilized by the greeting card industry in an attempt to start up Halloween cards. Though the cards didn't go over so well, the image of witch was popular and stuck around.
The jack-o-lantern idea came from American folklorists in the 1800s who mistook the Halloween celebrations as pagan in origin and attempted to bring in the Celtic tradition of carving turnips to scare away the dead souls of their ancestors. But the folklorists introduced pumpkins instead of turnips, a further error. So yes, the pumpkins are mildly reminiscent of pagan practices, though they were not a continuous tradition, but introduced by historians after American Halloween was already in practice.
Fr. T: Witches "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."
Is Halloween really a Christian festival? Why should I celebrate it?
Nowadays, Halloween is about as Christian as it is pagan-- which is to say not at all. The Christian traditions that coalesced to form our American celebration of Halloween are remembered by almost no one, and a popular mythology regarding Celtic origins has replaced it. Yet that doesn't make Halloween pagan either. What it means is that Halloween is a tradition that has morphed into its own independent holiday that is distinctly American.
Therefore, I see no more trouble with celebrating Halloween than with celebrating Independence Day. All things in moderation. (For the record: I love dressing up, attending parties and/or giving out/eating candy.) There is no harm in enjoying the neighborhood community while trick-o-treating or honoring your favorite superhero in costume.
But the main thing to remember on Halloween is that, for we Catholics, the Feast of All Saints is but a day away, and we might infuse our All Hallow's Eve with even more meaning and reverence by remembering those great men and women who gave everything for Christ and whose examples serve as a lantern to our earthly pilgrimage. And for All Souls who will be honored the next day, let us lift up our prayers for their peaceful repose.
Did it surprise you that Halloween was so Christian in origin? How should we respond to Halloween knowing its eclectic history: is it Christian? or has the popular mythology made it pagan? Do you celebrate Halloween? If so, how?