Every year the questions about the acceptability of celebrating Halloween arise in Catholic and Christian circles: Can my family to celebrate Halloween? Is it okay for my child to dress up and trick-or-treat? Is Halloween a pagan, satanic or secular holiday? These, and a myriad of other questions about Halloween haunt the consciousness of Catholics and Christians in October. And I, being a lover of history, thought I’d share a little bit about the origins of the holiday of Halloween.
What are the Catholic and Christian Origins of Halloween?
Halloween, held every year on October 31st, is a name that references the next day, November 1st, All Saints Day. It’s a contraction of “All Hallows Eve,” which is the vigil of All Hallows Day, which we call All Saints Day. Hallow is an old English word for saint but also means to make something holy or to honor something as holy.
Remembering and honoring martyrs for the faith has been happening since the birth of Christianity. However, during the persecution of Diocletian, when the number of martyrs for the Catholic faith were so numerous that a separate day of remembrance could not be assigned per person, the Church appointed a common day of remembrance for all martyrs. The first official celebration of this common day of martyrdom remembrance is not known, but homilies have been found by St. Ephrem of Syria in 373 and St. John Chrysostom in 407.
Initially only martyrs and St. John the Baptist were honored on this day, but as other saints were gradually canonized the idea of “All Saints Day” began as early as the year 411. Then, on May 13 in either 609 or 610, Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon in Rome to the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the martyrs, establishing it as the official All Saints Day. Later, Pope Gregory III, sometime during his papacy of 731-741, consecrated a chapel in St. Peter’s Bascillica to all the saints and set the anniversary for Rome of All Saints as November 1. Later this celebration was extended to the Catholic Church world-wide by Pope Gregory IV during his papacy of 827-844.
The Modern Take on Halloween
With the Catholic understanding of Christ’s victory over death, sin and the devil, Halloween’s relationship to the history of recognition of martyrs and saints who lived for Christ, the modern celebration of Halloween just doesn’t make sense.
In the early twentieth century, Halloween, like Christmas and Easter, have become extremely commercialized with pre-made costumes, decorations and special Halloween candy. Horror movies, especially the slasher, blood-and-guts movies of the 70s and 80s (I still shudder when I think of the Freddy Kruger clip I accidentally saw as a first grader) has given Halloween a scary, bad and unrelated-to-Catholicism reputation.
And in more recently years there has been an appropriation of Halloween by secular society, paganist, satanists, wiccans, atheists and many others. This modern take often leans towards the violent, scary, occult, evil, sexy or sinful, all at least partially reflective of the Culture of Death prevalent in our society. And very much in the opposite of the Catholic origins and history of Halloween. It makes it hard to celebrate as Catholics in a fun and holy way.
I don’t have an answer for what the “right way” to celebrate Halloween is. I know some families allow their children to dress up only as saints for Halloween. Other families allow their children to dress up for Halloween with Catholic guidelines (a baseball player or a cowboy or a Elsa from Frozen or a ballerina… you get the idea) and then allow their children to dress up as a Saint for All Saints Day. Some families allow their costumed kids get to go door-to-door trick-or-treating. Other families don’t allow any trick-or-treating and others allow a modified and currently very popular trunk-or-treating at their parish or school parking lot. However you and your family decide to spend Halloween, knowing and sharing the history of Halloween is important. So Happy Halloween / All Hallows Eve to all!
Want to Read More on this Topic?
For more information and thoughts on the history and origins of Halloween, I recommend New Advent’s brief history on Halloween and Word on Fire’s recent blog post “It’s Time for Catholics to Embrace Halloween.”