The Catholic Roots of Halloween
The origins of the October 31 holiday are deeply rooted in our Catholic faith.
By Brian Caulfield
When neighborhood kids don spooky costumes and go door to door shouting “trick-or-treat,” you may not see a Catholic tradition in action. Yet from a focus on the spirits of the dead to the very name of Halloween itself, the origins of the October 31 holiday are deeply rooted in our Catholic faith.
True, much of the religious background is hidden today amid a monthlong blitz of candy and commercialization. Scary costumes start appearing in stores shortly after the Back to School signs are put away, and front yards sport skeletons well before the frost is on the pumpkin. But despite the secular shift and advertising hype, there are still many ways to keep the “hallow” in Halloween. The word “hallow” itself is an archaic word for “saint,” so we can start by remembering that the holiday is named in relation to a holy day – Halloween is short for All Hallows’ Eve, i.e., the eve of All Saints’ Day (also called All Hallows’ Day).
Looking more closely at our Catholic tradition, we see that October 31 is the beginning of a three-day observance of “All-Hallowtide” – Halloween, All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2). The focus of these celebrations is on the dead, those who have gone before us to the grave, and the three days should remind us of our own mortality and the inevitable end of our time on earth. Yet the Church also reminds us that as Catholics we are all about life, in this case eternal life, as the celebration of All Saints’ and All Souls’ proclaim.
On Nov. 1, we pray for the intercession of those who have entered into the happiness of heaven, the canonized saints as well as the hidden holy ones who also rejoice in God’s presence. As Catholics, we must remember that to be a saint is to be with God in heaven, so we hope all our departed loved ones will be saints, and that in due time we will be one as well. On Nov. 2, we pray for the souls in purgatory, those who are passing through a time of spiritual purification in preparation for heaven. Whatever suffering they undergo is taken with the sure knowledge that they are among the saved who are preparing to enter into the presence of God. All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days place the fact of death squarely before our eyes, yet always in the context of the eternal life that will be ours if we live according to God’s grace and commands.
Halloween can be a fitting preparation to these two holy days on the Church’s calendar, so this time of fun is also a time of faith. With a little thought, we can find numerous opportunities to keep the “hallow” in Halloween and All-Hallowtide. Here are three simple suggestions:
1. All Saints’ Day is a Solemnity and generally a Holy Day of Obligation for Catholics, so we should plan to attend Mass on Nov. 1. The Gospel reading for the day includes the Beatitudes, in which Jesus calls “Blessed” those who live according to charity, mercy, peace and purity, and who accept rejection and persecution for the sake of the kingdom of God. In the Beatitudes we have a road map to eternal life.
2. We should also consider going to Mass on All Souls’ Day as well, to pray for the souls in purgatory, especially for anyone in our family who has died. This is a great time of year to pray for the souls in purgatory in general, whether by saying the rosary for them or other devotions.
3. A particularly powerful custom is to visit graveyards, a practice that combines prayer with a form of pilgrimage. It is especially meaningful to visit the gravesite of a relative or friend, bringing flowers with your prayers. But even if you know no one in the graveyard, you can offer your prayers for a forgotten soul in purgatory who has no one on earth to pray for him or her. In this way, you help that soul, and also give witness to our Catholic belief that we are all part of the family of God.
Different Catholic cultures have different traditions during this time of year, but all seek to help us remember those who have died in Christ. All-Hallowtide gives us all the opportunity to venerate the saints and pray for the souls in purgatory.
Have a happy – and holy – Halloween!
About the Author
Brian Caulfield is editor of knights.net and of Fathers for Good.