Oct 26, 2011
It is not generally known that, until 1955, Hallowe’en was listed on the Church’s liturgical calendar. Today, Halloween, as it is spelled and widely understood, has morphed into a major secular holiday that is anticipated by mid-October or before. In sales, it rivals those of Christmas. The public is barraged with images of diabolical and cruel evil spirits or monstrous creatures that wreak havoc everywhere they go, and with the ubiquitous colors of orange and black. The social media run the gamut to show their fascination with Halloween from the light-hearted trick-or-treating to ghoulish expressions. Men and women suit themselves up to imitate famous people. One day of fun can pass harmlessly if the history of the day is also explained to children who are curious about the origins of customs.
Pagan Origins of Hallowe’en
Hundreds of years before Christ, Druid tribes, prompted by the long nights and early dark of winter months, made mischief by heckling others with mean tricks and scaring them into offering fruits and sweets. By contrast, in Rome, the feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and gardens, sounded a happier note. Celebrated on November 1, it was the custom to eat or give away fruits, and especially apples.
The Christian Celebration of Hallowe’en
From the seventh- or eighth century in Ireland and Great Britain, perhaps as a remnant of Druid practices, October 31 came to be known as the eve of All Hallows, the eve of All Saints’ Day. The end of October marked the end of the fall harvest and the beginning of the dreary winter months. By the eleventh century, the day after All Saints’ was named All Souls’ Day, dedicated to the commemoration of all the departed faithful. The two feasts follow each other on November 1 and November 2, respectively. Until 1955, All Hallows Eve (All Hallows Even[ing]) was linked to the two feast days. The faithful were reminded of their own call to sainthood as well as the reality of death and the departed souls in Purgatory. They prayed for the dead whose prayers they sought.
One description of the day reads as follows: “Late in the evening in the country parishes, after supper was over, the housewives would spread a clean cloth on the table, set out pancakes and curds, and cider. And after the fire was banked and chairs set round the table for the returning loved ones, the family would recite Psalm 129,” the De Profundis (“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord) and then go to bed” (Mary Reed Newland, The Year and Our Children, 270-78).
The English custom of knocking at doors began by begging for a “soul cake” in return for which the beggars promised to pray for the dead of the household. The refrain sung at the door varied. It could be as short as “a soul cake, have mercy on all Christian souls for a soul cake” or a later version: