A few days ago, I was shopping at the local superstore and I happened to wander into the aisle selling Halloween costumes. Curious, I browsed through the colorful collection comprising every character imaginable, both human and animal: ninja, police officer, jedi knight, pirate, dog, beer maiden, gothic witch, lizard, Greek goddess, nurse, Disney princess, fairy, monarch butterfly, and zombie bride. You can even dress up as the devil. Ironically enough, “Halloween” consists of the word “hallow,” which means, “honor as holy; consecrate; greatly revered or respected” or “saint or holy person.” What is the history behind this paradox?
Halloween finds some of its roots in the ancient pagan feast celebrated by the Celtic peoples in England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and northwestern France on the eve of the Celtic New Year, or November 1st on the Gregorian calendar. Pagan belief held that Samhain, the lord of death, released souls from the underworld to return to their former homes on the last night of the year. Wicked spirits, demons, ghosts, and witches were also thought to wander the world during this time, and the Celtics believed they could avert their ill-intentioned mischief by offering them a feast and disguising themselves by dressing like the evil ones. In addition, the Celtics built a big, sacred bonfire on the hilltops, a symbolic gesture meant to ward off darkness and evil in the coming new year.
By 43 A.D., most of the Celtic territory succumbed to the rule of the Roman Empire, and the Celtic New Year’s Eve celebration was combined with the Roman autumn festival of Feralia, when the Romans honored the passing of the dead. During the first three centuries of Christianity, the early Church suffered great persecution under the Roman Empire, forcing it to operate “underground” and witnessing the mass execution of the countless faithful. After his fateful conversion to Christianity in 312 A.D., Western Roman Emperor Constantine I and Eastern Roman Emperor Licinius signed the Edict of Milan the following year, ending the oppression of Christians. Pope Boniface IV is credited for starting a formal recognition of all saints and martyrs when he consecrated the Pantheon in Rome to the Blessed Virgin Mary and All Martyrs on May 13, 609 A.D. In the mid-eighth century, Pope Gregory III officially commemorated All Saints’ Day on November 1. The origins of All Souls’ Day, celebrated on November 2, can be traced back to 998 A.D. when St. Odilo of Cluny, a Benedictine monk, began the custom of reserving a day of intercession for the faithfully departed awaiting to enter heaven.
Although many of the Celtics converted to Christianity, they retained aspects of the pagan Celtic New Year’s feast, especially the costume parties. For a time, the celebration was moved to the evening before All Souls’ Day in an attempt to conjoin the Celtic and Christian memorials of the dead. Children would go door to door, promising prayers for the dead of the household and receiving treats as tokens of appreciation. However, the celebration eventually reverted to its original date before All Saints’ Day, “Hallows’ Eve” or “Halloween.”
Despite the secularization of Halloween, many families and parishes maintain the holiday’s Christian roots, holding festivities in which they remember and dress up as saints and other holy people. Indeed, we may do well to go a step further and not only dress like them but also be like them. Maybe we need to practice courage and so we can look to St. George for strength. St. Maria Goretti can show us how to forgive. We can learn patience from St. Monica of Hippo and selflessness from St. Francis of Assisi. St. Teresa of Calcutta modeled great mercy and compassion while St. Therese of Lisieux embodied simplicity, turning ordinary tasks into extraordinary acts of love for God and others. Or maybe we take life too seriously and need to see and appreciate good humor; St. Philip can show us the path to holiness with a laugh. This Halloween, instead of simply following the crowd, let us challenge ourselves to imitate the virtues they exemplified so well so that we may be better followers of Christ and witnesses to the faith. Tonight, let us be the light of faith to the world.