Halloween – A Brief History

I’ve posted this before on my school website, but I thought I’d repost here. This is my take on the celebration of All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween in current usage).

“Hallow” is an old word for “holy” (it’s used that way in the Our Father); “e’en” is a contraction for “evening.” Our word “Halloween” is thus a shortened form of “All Hallow’s Eve.” If you’ve ever wondered if we should “celebrate” Halloween . . . read on! 🙂

In the mid-4th century a feast for all the martyrs was established to celebrate those untold people who had witnessed to their faith by dying for it (being thrown to hungry lions, set on fire, etc.). This feast was for all of the hallowed (holy) men and women who gave their life for Christ.

Pope Gregory III moved this feast of All Saint’s from May 13 to November 1 to commemorate the dedication of All Saints Chapel in St. Peter’s in Rome in 731. In 835 Pope Gregory IV made it a feast for the entire church [which ended up deciding the date of Halloween (All Hallow’s Eve – the day before All Saints) as October 31]. Thus our day of Halloween comes about because of a historical accident (and a churchy one at that!), rather than as some sort of planned celebration of “the occult” or “paganism” or “insert bad/evil-sounding reason here.” 🙂

In 998, St. Odilo (in France) added a celebration on November 2 for All Soul’s Day – a day to pray for all those who had died but were not martyrs or saints. This feast spread throughout Europe rather rapidly. All Hallow’s Eve thus became a vigil evening for two celebrations of those who have (hopefully) entered into heavenly glory before us.

Fast forward a bit – in the 14 & 15 centuries thousands died of the black plague in Europe. As a way of reminding people that death could come at any moment, people started wearing “spooky” costumes on All Soul’s day as a reminder of their mortality. People also started to dress up for the “dance of death” or “the dance macabre” – a form of morality play that reminded people, once again, that if they were not prepared for death (through prayer, sacramental celebrations, etc.) they could end up in a very scary place indeed! So our current custom of dressing up for Halloween (especially in scary and gory costumes) comes from a very Catholic root – the desire for people to turn away from sin and follow Jesus. The costumes were meant to be scary, so that people would think about their own death and the possible place they could live in for eternity. But what about trick or treating some might ask?

During the 1500-1700’s English Catholics were treated very badly. Some Catholics hatched a plan to blow up parliament and kill King James I on November 5. The plan didn’t go as well as planned, and a Catholic by the name of Guy Fawkes was caught and killed. This became Guy Fawkes Day in England, a day when Protestants would visit Catholic homes and demand beer and cake – trick or treat! 🙂

Paired with this was a belief popular in the Middle Ages that those who had died the previous year without being reconciled to you would come back to haunt you. Their spirits were supposed to jar you into praying for them and offering them your forgiveness. A trick or treat from beyond the grave!

Guy Fawkes day arrived with the settlers here in America, and eventually the festival was moved to Oct 31 (to coincide with the day of the Irish-French Dance of Death mentioned above).

Halloween as we know it now thus became a part of our cultural celebrations here in America in the 1800’s, but it’s roots go back to early Church decisions about feast days, morality plays about following Jesus, and even Christian infighting! I’d like to reiterate that the day of Halloween is a historical accident – if All Saints Chapel had been dedicated on another day, if the Dance Macabre was held on a different day, if the settlers had decided not to move Guy Fawkes day – our celebration of All Hallow’s Eve would be on a totally different day. Far from being a satanic holy day, or the Devil’s birthday, or a time for “occult” rituals, the date and celebration for All Hallow’s Eve came about because of various historical accidents.

As a side note, adults tend to shy away from gory or gruesome costumes, but historically Halloween was about our own mortality – hence the skulls, skeletons, jack-o-lanterns and spooky costumes; and witches, demons and devils can remind us that Christ has conquered sin and death – there is nothing for us to be afraid of anymore!

May your celebration of All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints and All Souls be hallowed indeed!

Blessings & Peace,
Hugo