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I recently received an email from a teacher asking if it is appropriate to hold Halloween celebrations in a Catholic primary school.
This question may not seem to have anything to do with liturgy, but in fact it does. The name ‘Halloween’ comes from ‘Hallowed (Holy) Evening’ meaning the evening of All Saints Day. Halloween is the vigil of the feast of All Saints on November 1.
Halloween originated with the ancient Celtic tribes who lived in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Brittany. For the Celts, November 1 marked the beginning of a new year and the coming of winter. On the night before the new year, they celebrated the festival of Samhain, Lord of the Dead.
To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires where crops and animals were burnt as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. The people wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins.
By the 9th century, Christianity had spread into Celtic lands. In 835 Pope Gregory IV moved the celebration for all the martyrs (later all saints) from May 13 to November 1 to Christianise the Celtic festival for remembering the dead.
Around the year 1000, the church designated November 2 as All Souls Day, because it was an obvious companion date and extension of the feast of All Saints. It was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels, and devils.
Both days are reminders that all of us, living and dead, are united in a living communion with Christ and one another. In effect, Halloween is one vigil for two feasts celebrated by the whole Church.
Celebrations of Halloween should certainly not overshadow those of All Saints and All Souls which provide the context for the former.
Understanding the historical background of Halloween customs shows that most are not antithetical to Christian faith. Used appropriately, they can provide opportunities for catechesis in a school context.
‘Trick or treat’, for example, comes from a Middle Ages superstition that those who had died the previous year without being reconciled to someone might rise at Halloween to haunt that person, appearing as will-o’-the-wisps or ghosts. These apparitions could be released by prayer and forgiveness, and giving them ‘soul cakes’ or ‘treats’ ensured protection from their ‘tricks’.
Halloween symbols of skeletons and skulls remind us of our own mortality and the need to pray for the dead. Halloween also invites us to talk openly about death in a culture that largely avoids the subject.
Perhaps it is not such a bad thing to have children dress up as witches and devils at Halloween if it suggests that these are objects of fun rather than something to be feared. Witches and devils symbolise the evil Christ has overcome. Christ has conquered sin and Satan once and for all. All of us share in that victory.
The Halloween tradition of carving pumpkins into Jack-o’-lanterns has more meaning when linked with the story behind the custom. Jack was a gifted fellow who was completely self-centred and never in his life used his talents to help another human being. Jack had the cleverness to outwit the devil, but it wasn’t enough to get him into heaven. Hence he is condemned to roam forever between heaven and earth, holding his pumpkin lantern high.
Rather than trying to ignore or resist the growing popularity of Halloween in this country, perhaps we can take advantage of the opportunities it offers to talk about a Christian understanding of the big issues of life and death, good and evil.