The Way of Beauty From All Hallows' Eve to Halloween: Part I

Halloween fever is just around the corner.  In two weeks, many children and adults will don costumes of all designs and descriptions.  PetSmart has designed an elaborate Halloween web site for dogs, cats, and other pets. At Halloween parties, adults will primp their outfits while children will ring doorbells ready to blurt out "trick or treat."  

Ask the meaning of Halloween, and most people will give you blank stares. Children will shrug their shoulders hoping that their ignorance will not deprive them of a treat from the questioner.  The short answer?  In the Middle Ages, Halloween was marked on the Christian church calendar as All Hallows' Eve, the day before All Saints' Day, formerly known as All Hallows' Day.   

With every passing year, October 31st grows into a mega-business.  It is set aside for images of devils and evil spirits, witches, goblins, ghouls, oversized cats, bonfires, Jack-O'-Lanterns, trick or treating.  You may argue: What's the harm in having a few hours of fun once a year?  Fun is fast turning into vandalism and violence.  Some parents keep their children close to home instead of risking their safety to go trick or treating without an adult.  Others chaperone their children lest they be deprived of the enjoyment linked to the night's festivities.  What's the harm in getting dressed up in Halloween costumes once a year?   The response to this question will come in Part Two of this essay.

The Devil in Music

The musical composition, "Danse Macabre," by Camille Saint-Saëns is traditionally played on Halloween.  It suggests the presence of the devil and evil spirits by highlighting the 'devil's interval,' a tinny sound of two notes that jar the ear as though someone is harping on wrong notes.  This sound is never (never) permitted in classical composition except to make a point.  Clearly, the point of "Danse Macabre" is to mimic the devil in music. 

How did we get from All Hallows to Halloween?  

Pagan Origins 

Hundreds of years before Christ, the Druids of Celtic lands made mischief by heckling others with mean tricks and scaring them into offering fruits and sweets. They were prompted by the long nights and early darkness of winter months.  

In contrast, Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruits and gardens, was celebrated on November 1st.  In the Roman Empire, the custom of eating or giving away fruits, and especially apples, became popular.

The Christian Celebration

As with Christmas and Christmas Eve, the Church sacralized a pagan celebration.  In this case it Christianized the mischief of the Druids and the practice of the Roman goddess Pomona.  From the seventh- or eighth century, the Church marked October 31st as All Hallows' Eve, the eve of All Saints' Day.  The day recalled men and women who had died as Christians but were not officially canonized. 

By the eleventh century, All Souls' Day, the day after All Saints' Day, was dedicated to the commemorate all the faithful departed.  All Hallows' Eve was then linked to the two feast days. In Ireland and Great Britain, the end of October marked the end of the fall harvest and the beginning of the barren winter, and the faithful were reminded of the call to sainthood as well as the reality of the Four Last Things, death, judgment, heaven, or hell. 

Depending on where one lived, All Hallows' Eve was celebrated by praying that all would attain sainthood like all the saints.  At the same time, prayers were offered to the dead whose prayers, in turn, one sought.  

In her book, The Year and Our Children, Mary Reed Newland writes:  "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, "Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord" (De Profundis clamavi ad te, Domine) and then go to bed.

The English custom of knocking at doors began by begging for a soul cake. In return, 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" 

to a later version: 

More in The Way of Beauty

"Soul, soul, an apple or two, 

If you haven't an apple, a pear will do, 

One for Peter, two for Paul, 

Three for the Man Who made us all."  


Advent of the Doughnut   

With the soul cake came a new development and an ingenious variation-the doughnut.  To remind people that life on earth was but a passing reality, a hole was carved out of the middle of the cake so that those who ate the cake were reminded of eternity. Later on, charades, pantomime, and mini-dramas were developed on the reality of life after death and the means of attaining salvation.  With the remembrance of a saintly life came images of evil and scary creatures like those mentioned above.  Cats were ancient symbols of the devil.  Still, the familiar and seasonal harvest fruits such as apples, cornstalks and pumpkins were given out to beggars.  Christian art depicted death by skulls and bones to remind Christians of death.  Pagan and Christian symbols existed side by side.

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It is not definitively known to what extent there was a link between the practices of the Druids and the people of Ireland and Great Britain.  Nevertheless, Christendom cast its thoughts from the end of temporal life to thoughts of death, sainthood and the departed souls.  The saints in heaven and those suffering in Purgatory are part of the full and complete Body of Christ, the Church.  In 1955, All Hallows' Eve was stricken from the Church calendar.  Since then, the religious significance of October 31st has disappeared.   What remains is a day of devilish antics.

To be continued next week.

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