The long, twisted story of All Hallows Eve

One game some postmodern people never tire of is attempting to shock Catholics with the news that something or other regarding the Faith is really just warmed-over paganism. (Though curiously, one never hears that people who say “Today is Thursday” are worshipers of Thor.) And a favorite claim among such folk is the old chestnut (never realized by them to be an old chestnut) that Halloween is really druidry that got unsuccessfully suppressed and transmogrified by the Church.

Now, it’s true that the ancient Celts of the British Isles had a little festival on Oct. 31. But this was much as Americans mark Arbor Day on their calendars without it occupying a lot of psychological space in their consciousness. In short, it wasn’t that big of a deal to ancient Celts.

More than that, Halloween is called that because it is the vigil of the feast of All Saints or “All Hallows.” But that feast was not founded to accommodate British Celts; it was founded for Roman Christians. The problem was Italian logistics, not “How do we get the Druids on board?” The Church by the seventh century was swimming in martyrs and saints, popular in various locales. If we celebrated all their feast days, nobody would get any work done. Solution: have a feast to celebrate all the saints popular in different Italian towns and villages all at once.

Feast of All Saints

“Yes,” says the Wiccan, “and so they picked our feast of Samhain to co-opt us!”

Actually, no. All Saints was originally celebrated on May 13, but Pope Gregory III (d. 741) moved it to Nov. 1, the dedication day of All Saints Chapel at St. Peter’s in Rome. Notice that the All Saints Chapel is a considerable distance from the nearest Druid cult in the British Isles. Also notice that Gregory could not have cared less what the few remaining Celts might think about that — particularly because the feast was local to Rome and its environs and had nothing whatsoever to do with the British Isles.

It was not until a century later, in the 840s, that Pope Gregory IV commanded All Saints to be observed everywhere. And so the holy day (finally!) spread to Ireland. And by that time, Ireland had already been thoroughly Christian for a very long while, given that St. Patrick, the apostle to Ireland, had died three centuries before.

Honoring the dead

So if it’s not from paganism, how does Halloween pick up the Day of the Dead vibe? Well, about a century and a half later, St. Odilo, the abbot of the powerful monastery at Cluny (way over in southern France — not Ireland), adds a celebration of All Souls on Nov. 2. Because Cluny is the coolest place in Europe at the time, the devotion spreads everywhere, resulting in back-to-back feasts for all those in heaven and purgatory.

What about those in hell? The tenderhearted but obviously superstitious Catholic Irish fretted that the damned might not take kindly to being left out. So it became customary to bang pots and pans on All Hallows Eve to mollify them. This is not something the Church was thrilled with, but the irrepressible Irish did it anyway.

Things go along in this vein in Ireland (and nowhere else) until the 14th and 15th centuries. At this point, the colossal death toll of the bubonic plague (half the population died) makes a rather large impression on the European psyche, and Catholics became pretty focused on the afterlife. The result was a big uptick in Masses on All Souls Day as well as great enthusiasm for artistic representations of the danse macabre, or “dance of death,” featuring the devil leading a daisy chain of people from every walk of life into the tomb.

Costumes and treats

On All Souls Day, not Halloween, the French would dress up in costume representing everybody from the pope and the king down to the fishmonger and have a fun time dancing. But it was the French, not the Irish, who did that.

So how did costumes become part of Halloween? Most likely it begins when the French and Irish started hanging out together and marrying each other in the 17th-century American colonies. Creepy Irish folk customs about mollifying the damned and creepy French masquerades went together like peanut butter and chocolate.

And the “trick or treat” bit? Well, it wasn’t only French and Irish Catholics who were routinely treated badly by their English Protestant neighbors. English Catholics got it in the neck, too, and the great high feast of politicized English anti-Catholicism fell within days of Halloween: Guy Fawkes Night.

Guy Fawkes was an English Catholic who, whether because of a real conspiracy on his part or from being set up by a British crown requiring a patsy to focus English patriotic hatred on a Catholic bogeyman, was executed in 1605 on the charge of trying to blow up Parliament. Ever since, the Brits have had a wonderful time on Nov. 5, lighting bonfires, running around on a chilly fall night, and partying. And for extra special fun, in England and America in the 18th century, Protestants would put on masks and visit local Catholic houses in the dead of night demanding beer and cakes for their celebration — or else. When they said “trick or treat!” they meant it.

Happily, as time went on, the anti-Catholicism of the season diminished. But “trick or treat” stuck around and got amalgamated to Oct. 31, the day the Irish and French were partying anyway. So by the mid-1800s, a largely made-in-the-USA Halloween was a fixture of American culture. Meanwhile, even today, Halloween remains almost unknown in Europe, even in the countries where some of the customs originated. It’s about as ancient and pagan and mystical and druidic as “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

When it comes to the “pagan origins” of Halloween, it turns out there is nothing there. Halloween is a product of Christian culture — and mostly American Christian culture — through and through. Where it is most ancient, it is least pagan — and most deeply Catholic.

Mark Shea writes the “Catholic and Enjoying It” blog at Patheos.com.