We all love the modern traditions of Halloween, when kids of all ages dress in costumes and go door-to-door around their neighborhoods collecting candy and other treats every October 31. The origins of this saccharine-coated “holiday” can be directly linked to All Saints’ Day, a holy day celebrated on November 1, and followed by All Souls’ Day on November 2. Some may confuse one, or even all three of these, as being the same, but they are all very different.
All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day are related, but they are two separate celebrations. On All Saints’ Day, the Christian holy day honoring saintly people from the past, there’s a call to live as saints, to remind us how we’re supposed to live. All Souls’ Day is about all souls and asking God’s mercy for them.
The root word of Halloween, “hallow,” means “holy.” The suffix “een” is an abbreviation of “evening.” Translated as “Eve of All Hallows,” or “All Hallow’s Eve,” it represents the night before All Saints’ Day. Catholics commemorate many saints on their own “Saints Day,” often on the anniversary of their death. But with thousands of canonized saints, only a small percentage are recognized regularly. So, in the seventh century, Pope Boniface IV officially established All Saints’ Day in order to honor all the saints at one time. Originally, observed on May 13, in the eighth century, Pope Gregory III moved it to November 1. Many historians believe the Church moved the observance to correspond with Samhain, a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the “darker half” of the year. Traditionally, Samhain is celebrated from sunset on 31 October to sunset on 1 November. The festival falls approximately halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.
The Catholic Church had a long-standing policy of incorporating non-Christian traditions into its holidays in order to bring people into the Catholic faith. This included moving the dates of Christian holidays to those of established non-Christian occasions. Many historians believe, for example, that the church set Christmas on December 25 so that it would correspond with pagan winter solstice festivals.
Thus, when All Saints’ Day moved to November 1, the church began to incorporate Samhain traditions into the holy day’s activities. This helped bring descendants of the ancient Celts into Christianity, but it posed some problems for the church. Much of the Samhain traditions centered on the supernatural and spirit world, ideas that don’t have much of a place in Christianity. More than a thousand years ago in Ireland and Britain, a common custom of Christians was to come together on the eve of the feast of All Hallows Day to ask for God’s blessing and protection from evil in the world, as this is considered a time when evil could manifest itself. Often, they would dress in costumes of saints or evil spirits and act out the battle between good and evil around bonfires; the source of the modern observance of Halloween.
Despite some unease in the church, these supernatural ideas persisted, making the occasion a remarkable combination of Christian and pagan beliefs. The Catholic Church could not get rid of the supernatural elements of the celebrations, so they began characterizing the spirits as evil forces associated with the devil. This is where we get a lot of the more disturbing Halloween imagery, such as evil witches and demons.
At the end of the 10th century, the church tried to give these traditions a little more direction by establishing All Souls’ Day, an occasion to recognize all Christian dead. The Roman Catholic celebration is associated with the doctrine that the souls of the faithful who at death have not been cleansed cannot enter heaven, and that these souls stuck in purgatory may be helped along to heaven by prayer. On All Souls’ Day, Catholic churches have a Book of the Dead, in which parishioners have an opportunity to write the names of relatives to be remembered. The book is placed near the altar, and this is done all through November, in fact, not just on the second day of the month.
All Souls’ Day lives on today, particularly in Mexico, where All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day are collectively observed as “Los Dias de los Muertos” (The Days of the Dead). First and foremost, the Days of the Dead is a time when families fondly remember the deceased. But it is also a time marked by festivities, including spectacular parades of skeletons and ghouls. This masquerade is closely connected to the celebration of Halloween, as are other elements of All Souls’ Day.
In medieval times, one popular All Souls’ Day practice was to make “soul cakes,” simple bread desserts. In a custom called “souling,” children would go door-to-door begging for the cakes, much like modern trick-or-treaters. For every cake a child collected, he or she would have to say a prayer for the dead relatives of the person who gave the cake. These prayers would help the relatives find their way out of purgatory and into heaven. The children even sang a soul cake song along the lines of the modern “Trick-or-treat, trick-or-treat, give me something good to eat.” One version of the song went:
A soul cake! A soul cake! Have mercy on all Christian souls, for A soul cake!
There is also some evidence of trick-or-treat type activities in the original Celtic tradition. A lot of the Samhain celebration had to do with honoring Celtic gods, and there’s evidence that the Celts would dress as these deities as part of the festival. They may have actually gone door to door to collect food to offer to the gods. The Celts also clearly believed in fairies and other mischievous creatures, and the notion of Halloween trickery may have come from their reported activities on Samhain.
While all the history behind Halloween is interesting, it’s not necessary in enjoying all that the season has to offer, whether it is watching scary movies, decorating the house with symbols of the holiday, carving Jack-O-Lanterns, and dressing up for a costume party or trick-or-treating. One thing is certain, Halloween continues to grow in popularity, and it is not just for kids anymore. It’s become a multi-billion dollar industry in this country alone, and it is celebrated all month long.