Halloween is coming — dark nights, glowing jack-o-lanterns, foggy cemeteries.
While Halloween is most often seen as a time for costumes and trick or treat, “Halloween” really started because a holy day was placed near the time of pagan harvest festivals.
Nov. 2 is the feast of All Souls and, during the month of November, we are asked to pray in a special way for the souls of the faithful departed. Why do this in November?
As early as the fifth century, a day of prayer for the dead was marked on the Monday after Pentecost. About 500 years later, St. Odilo (962-1049) moved the feast to Nov. 2, at least for the monks in the abbeys of his order: the Cluniacs. The practice spread, as their monks traveled — most especially into the British Isles. There they met up with the Celtic tradition of Samhain (the name of the Lord of the Dead) harvest festivals.
For the Celts, Nov. 1 was the end of the growing season and the start of the druidic New Year, as well as the beginning of winter. Samhain was marked by large festivals, complete with feasts, bonfires, pumpkins and scarecrows made from straw, corn husks and other harvest leftovers.
Also, people believed that, at the turning of the year, the veil between the world of the living and of the dead grew thin and the souls of the dead — especially the recent dead — could roam free and return to haunt those who had wronged them in life. These souls could take many forms, but preferred witches and toads. People hoped to placate these angry souls by leaving gifts for them, especially gifts of food. In other words, angry souls could be prevented from playing tricks by the offering of treats. People also wore masks so that the ghosts would not recognize them.
The reason the All Souls Masses and prayers were moved to Nov. 2, and not Nov. 1, is because the feast of All Saints was already celebrated then, and had been since the early eighth century.
A church feast day honoring Christ’s saints arose from earlier feasts honoring specific martyrs— who were the first formally acknowledged saints. Early Christian churches were often built over the tombs of martyrs. (There’s another cemetery connection — and not as a spooky place.) For a while, the first Sunday after Pentecost was a preferred day for a feast honoring all the saints. However, in 610 A.D., that changed.
Pope Boniface IV gained possession of the old Roman Pantheon in 610 and converted it into a Christian church. The Pantheon — with its famous open dome — was originally built (and rebuilt in 125 A.D.) as a temple to honor the vast array of Roman deities. When Pope Boniface received the Pantheon from the Byzantine Emperor Phocas, he followed the common tradition of blessing and rededicating pagan temples for Christian use; he placed the Pantheon under the patronage of the Virgin Mary and all Christian martyrs.
The day of this new church’s dedication was May 13, 610, and was a carefully chosen date. In imperial Rome, May 9, 10 and 13 were the days of Lemuria, a Roman festival meant to appease the anger of the gods. (Not all that different, in its way, than Samhain.) So not only did Pope Boniface rededicate a temple into a Christian church, he rearranged a pagan holiday into a feast honoring the church’s saints.
The May 13 date for All Saints Day continued until the time of Pope Gregory III (731-41). Pope Gregory had to deal with iconoclasts, who opposed all religious icons and destroyed many images of Christ and the saints. Pope Gregory finally excommunicated them. And, perhaps to make the message quite clear, he dedicated a chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica to “all the saints” on Nov. 1. The date stuck.
The feast of “All Saints” was also called the feast of “All Hallows” (“all holy ones”). The vigil of All Saints Day became known as All Hallows Eve, eventually shortened to “Halloween.” So there you have two pagan feasts that dealt with malevolent souls and angry gods being transformed into Christian events that celebrate the grace of God at work in human lives.
When we talk about saints, they always seem to remind us of less-than-saintly people who often opposed them and their beliefs. The Jack-o-lantern is a legend that reminds us of those who practice less-than-saintly living.
The Jack-o-lantern traces back a few centuries to an Irish legend about “Stingy Jack,” a man who was so ungenerous that he tricked the devil himself out of a coin for a drink at a local pub. Then, when the devil came for payback, Jack even tricked him out of taking Jack’s soul.
However, Jack was unrepentant — some stories say he was a thief — and when he died, he was denied entry to heaven. Of course, the devil wouldn’t take him either. The most Lucifer would give to Jack was a single burning coal from hell’s fire.
So Jack carved a lantern for himself out of a turnip (or a beet) and still wanders the night with it, searching for a final place to rest. He became known as “Jack of the lantern.” The pumpkin came later — probably because it’s bigger than a turnip or beet — as did its carved face with the glowing light inside.
Sources: Catechism of the Catholic Church; “The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia”; “Christifideles Laici”; “Dictionary of Catholic Devotions”; americancatholic.org; history.com; bbc.co.uk; “The Dublin Penny Journal”; and irishcentral.com.